Monday, February 10, 2020

Peabody Morning: Marching Ducks, High Tea and Memories of Young Elvis

Never turn down an opportunity to spend a morning in Memphis at the venerable Peabody Hotel.

The Good Girls survey the scenery from atop the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. 

Where else can you watch ducks march from the lobby elevator to a fountain, take a tour of the hotel with the elegantly attired Duckmaster, meet the son of Elvis' tailor and enjoy a delicious high tea surrounded by elegance in Chez Philippe, the world's only French Restaurant that has never served duck?

The VIP feeling begins immediately when you walk through the door. Adults take seats at tables in the lobby, while youngsters stay busy talking to the Duckmaster and checking out the “duck pond” where the ducks soon would head.

Dubbed the "South's Grand Hotel," the first Peabody opened in 1869 closing 54 years later. It reopened as a larger, better version in 1925, at its current downtown location.

In the 1930s, the Peabody held one of three locations where CBS radio broadcast live shows, attracting top bands like Tommy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, Harry James and Les Brown. Between 1945 and 1950, one such program was hosted by young Sam Phillips who later launched Sun Records and the career of Elvis Presley. Elvis connections appear all over Memphis.

The ducks arrived in the 1930s, too. Turtles and young alligators previously had appeared in the fountain, but their tenure was always short. Then, one afternoon in 1933, General Manager Frank Schutt and his pal Chip Barwick returned late from a duck hunting trip in Arkansas. They planned to keep temperatures and spirits high with liberal doses of Tennessee sipping whiskey. In those days, live ducks were used as decoys, so they deposited three small English Call ducks in the lobby fountain.

When morning arrived, the ducks were still happily paddling around, delighting guests and staff. The 85-year tradition of Peabody ducks had begun.

The original Duckmaster Edward Pembroke.
In 1940, Bellman Edward Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, volunteered to bring the ducks to the fountain each day. He soon had them trained to march in line, enhancing the tradition. Pembroke became the first official Duckmaster and performed the morning and afternoon ritual until his retirement in 1991.

On the morning of our visit,  three female and one male mallard performed perfectly, clearly eager for their daily swim. As the lobby emptied, Duckmaster Kenon, in training to be the seventh to hold that title, began the daily hotel tour.

We learned that the '60s and '70s were not kind to the Peabody and in 1975 it was put up for sale on the courthouse steps. Belz Enterprises stepped in, bought and saved the venerable hostelry, spending $25 million to restore and remodel the Peabody to even greater glory, ducks and all.

After admiring the ceilings and chandeliers, we were led to Lansky Bros, "Clothiers to the King," who moved their famed store into the new Peabody.

Kenon introduced us to Hal, son of Bernard Lansky who befriended young Presley and encouraged him to visit the store any time.

Kenon shows off one of his favorite Elvis jackets, the style he wore for his wedding with a special lining for today's buyers. The checked jacket behind him is like the one Bernard Lansky fitted on Elvis for his appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
When Presley was booked onto the Ed Sullivan show in Sept. 9, 1956, he came to Lansky with a problem: he needed something nice to wear but didn't have any money. Bernard fitted him out on credit. Ever loyal, Elvis came to Lansky for clothes from then on, sporting the pink and black outfits Lansky developed for him to his wedding tux.

Hal encouraged us to try on a few things, not that we needed any encouragement.

Debi went for sparkle with the gold sequined jacket while Judy opted for a slightly less flashy model.
Other performers relied on Lansky, too, including B.B. King, Isaac Hayes, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

So can you;  a jacket like the one Elvis wore for his wedding with a special lining will set you back $295, a bottle of his cologne $60.

With Elvis fresh on our mind, we toured upstairs, seeing the photo documenting the signing of Elvis' first recording contract with RCA,

the note ordering no dead ducks at the Peabody

and the square grand piano built expressly for Francis Scott Key.

The Duck Palace

Then it was up to the roof to check out the views and the $200,000 Duck Palace.

By this time, we had worked up an appetite and were ready for a bit of high tea pampering at Chez Philippe. Elegant is the word for this hushed space, a sigh of refinement in an otherwise bustling world beyond the tables set with Petite Fleur china.

We started with Champagne, then selected from among seven teas and savored our environment. In perfectly timed succession we were served our beverages,

a two-tiered arrangement of savories,

a basket of hot blueberry scones

and a a three-tiered array of sweets.

Delicious, but too much to eat. We left with a box of goodies hoping the maid at the hotel would find them as delicious as we did. Most of all, we left feeling like we were somebody at the Peabody.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Elvis on our mind

The highway to Memphis was an easy drive, lightened by funny signs over the roadway. Our faves:

"100 is the temperature not the speed limit" and "What's holding you up? Buckle your seat belt."

Elvis Aron Presley fascinates even those who did not care much for his music, possibly because his is a classic "poor boy makes good" story. He was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935, in a two-room house built by his dirt poor father, grandfather and uncle. Young Elvis dreamed of becoming a legend like his comic book hero, Captain Marvel. Getting a guitar instead of the bike or gun he wanted, was step one. Becoming a fan of Black gospel and blues music was step two.

Step three came when the family moved to Memphis in search of better work. Elvis found not only a high school graduation and work as a truck driver, he found an outlet for his music, cutting a demo record at his own expense, performing on the country circuit and recording at Sun Records. Cue the Thunderbolt, hair style and cape of Captain Marvel as Elvis signed with RCA in 1957. The rest is show biz history and just as Elvis dreamed, legend.

 We checked into The Guest House at Graceland and quickly caught a shuttle over to the Visitors Center. Our plan was to pick up our prearranged tickets and see Graceland then go into Memphis for dinner and to see the city at night. We would start the morning in Memphis then return to do the Elvis Exhibitions, cars, motorcycles and planes.

So much for plans. Our tickets were not there, so while the clerk did some checking, we did some retail therapy in the large shop. Finally, we were told our tickets would be there the next morning, upgraded to VIP for the snafu. Okay then, disappointed but undaunted, we would have an adult beverage in the Jungle Room Bar, catch a shuttle back, spiff up a bit and head downtown. Sorry, said the clerk, they changed the hours; it closed at 4. It was now 5:45, the last shuttle left at 6.

Hot and truly frustrated, we went back to the hotel and sought out an adult beverage in the lounge. It was packed and they had run out of proper glasses for what we finally managed to order. Put it in anything you have, the exhausted Good Girls replied, knowing we would not be making it to downtown Memphis.

Mirrors overhead.
This did give us an opportunity to enjoy the lovely 450-room hotel adjacent to Graceland and have a leisurely evening, a rarity on our normal hectic schedule.

Lobby chairs inspired by Elvis' capes.

We listened to the good cover band in the lobby then headed to our room, loving the tasteful and often subtle Elvis homages.

 We turned on the TV and "chose our Elvis," '50s. '60s or '70s.

Sadly missing was my favorite, the landmark return TV special, a handsome, black leather clad Elvis singing at his peak in an intimate, in-the-round setting.

Our own Elvis homage began the next afternoon, cramming a full day into a half-day. We started with Graceland, shuttling over from the Visitors Center and jumping the line in true VIP style. We had been loaned an I-pad and headset for an inform-yourself tour narrated by John Stamos and Lisa Marie Presley, but I found the wires made taking notes impossible and photos difficult and abandoned it, preferring to soak up the atmosphere unencumbered. 

I was impressed with the house and its grounds. Not grand by today's standards and very livable, it was a poor boy made good's gracious home for his beloved mother.

The living,

dining room

and kitchen are perfect for family gatherings. Visitors don't see the upstairs bedrooms, but we did see his parents' bedroom and that fun loving boy's toys:

the ridiculously dark Jungle Room,

his pool room

and music room with its three TVs (just like President Johnson's).


you continue on to his father Vernon's office filled with fans' portraits of Elvis, racquetball court, gym,

gun range, trophy room, swimming pool,

paddocks, pastures and barn for horses.

Sometimes the visitors are part of the story.

A large display area of family memorabilia, from report cards and decorators' bills to wedding attire and nursery furnishings further endeared the late performer to us.

Seeing the family burial plot beyond the pool was particularly moving, cementing the overall impression.

This was not a showplace, it was home.

The glitz, glamor and excess are shown off in The Presley Motors Automobile Museum, The Entertainer Career Museum and Elvis Discovery Exhibits.

It is, in a word, overwhelming. You could spend hours looking at cars alone including

the pink Cadillac he gave his mother, who never had a driver's license, the year after its purchase,

the 1966 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III that has been owned by Michael London and Charlie Rich since Elvis traded it in

and the 1973 Stutz Blackhawk he was driving the last time he arrived at Graceland.

One room is of metal racks filled with the minutia of an incredibly full life.

The costumes Elvis wore on stage, displayed in chronological order, are dominated by clinging jumpsuits, bejeweled belts, matching shoes and sweeping capes.

They did not forget his Army days - uniform and luggage - or the influence Elvis had on other performers who adopted elements of his style.

Transitioning through a narrow room with walls of gold and platinum records, awards, firsts and achievements, is mind-blowing.

So much achieved in such a short life.

All the while you are silently or quietly singing along to the recorded songs that underscored much of our lives. It isn't a castle but it is definitely a royal tribute to the King.

It is also exhausting. These are not small spaces and two tired, footsore Good Girls who were on visual overload skipped the two planes to catch the last shuttle back to the Guest House. Memphis at night would have to wait for another time.

Instead we fought even larger crowds for an adult beverage in the wrong glasses and pondered what to do next. The concierges are supremely helpful and told us about Marlowe's Ribs & Restaurant 15 miles farther down Elvis Presley Boulevard.

They would pick us up in a pink Cadillac limo and bring us back after dinner. With feet so sore we didn't even want to walk out to our car in the parking lot, that sounded perfect.

It was. Casual, funky with a lively bar, good local beer and decent barbecue plus an Elvis homage or three, we left re-energized. Perhaps we might even manage to stay up for the much heralded nightly peanut butter sandwiches served at the Guest House.

 It wasn't hard.The lobby was full, everyone enjoying the older, very talented piano player who sounded so much like Elvis he might have been an impersonator in his salad days. He was a consummate entertainer and eventually had all up dancing to the infectious songs of Elvis and his contemporaries.

When his sets finished, the peanut butter sandwiches and hot chocolate were brought out. We weren't hungry and the sandwiches weren't anything to write home about, but it brought a satisfying conclusion to our Elvis immersion.

We had resisted the ultimate immersive souvenir, a glittering gold lame suit, only $2,900.