Legendary Peabody ducks serve as hotel’s touring ambassadors
Posted: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 8:01 pm
MEMPHIS (AP) — Five honored guests hurried down the red carpet at a retirement village last week, one stopping to quack in a little girl’s face and wiggle his tail, drawing laughter, before padding back to the others.
The ambassadors had arrived.
The Peabody ducks are accustomed to travel. In October, for example, they were the first to walk the red carpet at the Broadway opening of “Memphis,” the musical.
But it wasn’t until 2007 that the hotel launched The Peabody Goodwill Ambassador Program, creating a schedule of local appearances at schools and hospitals. This summer it added retirement communities, including The Village at Germantown, where their visit drew a crowd of more than 100. The birds will make 20 area visits by the end of the year.
The ducks seem to like attention, said Jonathan Lyons, a hotel marketing official who assists with the visits. “They’re real easygoing, laid-back ducks.” Kids laugh when the ducks flap their feathers at them. “We tell them the ducks are waving,” he said. Actually, they’re probably just stretching.
Duckmaster Jason Sensat and Lyons ferry the ducks, four hens and a drake, in a van in a portable nylon mesh cage. They also bring two 25-foot red carpets for them to walk on, a recording of John Philip Sousa’s “King Cotton March,” and portable fencing that separates the birds from spectators. For the performance, Sensat dons his braided jacket, duck-head cane and ringmaster voice.
The performance varies with the audience. Kids, usually from kindergarten through second grade, are taught the importance of protecting the wetlands of North America and the Memphis region, the habitat of mallard ducks, like The Peabody flock. Ducks are omnivores, meaning they eat anything, Sensat explains, so it’s important to pick up litter.
At retirement communities, he focuses on The Peabody’s history, which invariably elicits memories from seniors of Sunset Serenades on the roof and the bands that played in the Skyway Ballroom in the 1940s, such as Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. The Andrews Sisters sang there, too. The audience might learn that Elvis Presley’s junior-senior prom was held at the hotel. Presumably, he attended, since he was fitted for a pink and black tuxedo at Lansky Brothers store.
“It brings back such memories of the old Peabody,” said Sue Barnett, 79, a Memphis native who remembers her sorority dances there. “Young people can’t appreciate how we dated, what an elegant time it was. We got all dressed up.”
Folks at Kirby Pines Retirement Community, where the ducks visited the next day, remembered turning points in their lives.
“My first Peabody memory was my soldier boyfriend, Dan Young, having the band play our song ’Always,’ “ said Mary Jane Dugan Young. He gave her an engagement ring at the dance.
Jennie Anderson kept her hotel receipt from her honeymoon night at The Peabody in 1951. It included the room, two room service meals and flowers for $16.97.
Seniors and kids alike want to know about Sensat, who became duckmaster in 2007, carrying on a tradition that began in 1932. There had been only three before him. Sensat was a former training manager at the hotel and remains an associate pastor at Faith Assembly of God church in Millington.
“They’re easier to train than I thought,” said Sensat. “They’re such creatures of habit; you get them doing a little routine, and they stick with it.”
He and an assistant feed and clean up after the ducks that live in the $200,000 Duck Palace, a 24-by-12-foot enclosure, on The Peabody roof. Renovated in 2008, it is climate-controlled, with a fountain for swimming and a large viewing window. The ducks are about a year old, and their wings are clipped, so they can’t fly. After three months’ duty, they are sent to a Tennessee farm where their feathers grow out again and they transition to life in the wild. Eventually, they just fly off. Ambassador ducks are the “old hands.” While the current group toured, five rookie ducks were back at the hotel being schooled.
Peabody officials said the ambassador tours keep the hotel more engaged with the greater community while offering a chance to educate folks and spread the hotel’s history.
The visits are more interactive than the regular hotel duck marches, said Sensat, with time to talk, answer questions and share memories. Kids learn that ducks are something to treasure. Seniors see their young lives dance again across their memories.
Published in The Messenger 9.1.10