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River Town, Music Town, Fun Town – That’s Memphis! Part 1

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Story and photos by Betsy Marvin

Big fans of the historic hotels of America, we’d long wanted to see the storied Hotel Peabody, and a winning bid for two nights there, in the annual (May) National Trust online auction fundraiser, provided the opportunity for a weekend getting to know Memphis. Our chance to sample a few tidbits of the legendary center for blues ‘n’ barbecue led us to discover that the city boasts a good art museum, a symphony, an NBA team, parks, a zoo and other attractions. But in our brief visit we wanted to find the essence of what sets this “mid-southern” city apart and makes it special. And of course, there’s Elvis!

We flew up from Atlanta early Friday, getting to the hotel before 10:30, too soon to check in, but in time for the first adventure, the viewing of the famous Peabody ducks. The tradition started back in the ‘30s when the hotel’s general manager and his hunting buddies, tired after a late night of celebrating their successes, left the live decoy ducks in the hotel lobby, rather than transporting them back to the farm. Morning found the feathered guests enjoying the lobby fountain and human guests enjoying the ducks; a ritual was born.

Nowadays each morning at eleven, the “duckmaster” rolls out a red carpet to the elevator, and five ducks ride down from their home on the roof, strutting the carpet toward the Italianate marble fountain to a stirring Sousa march and the happy applause and flashing cameras of hordes of onlookers. They spend the day swimming, and at five o’clock the march is reversed. Delighted spectators include not only hotel guests but outsiders as well, all of whom are enthusiastically welcomed. During the popular Peabody pets’ time upstairs in the Duck Palace, visitors ascend to enjoy wonderful views of the city and river, and view two sets of ducks in their comfortable abode.

Built in the mid-19th century, moved and rebuilt in 1925, the Peabody has housed the wealthy and noteworthy of each era. But Memphis has another significant side, the poor farmers and sharecroppers, white and black, who came to make their fortunes in the big city. Musicians among them brought traditions of gospel and work songs that blended and evolved into blues and later rock and roll. The Memphis Museum of Rock ‘n’ Soul traces the development of this vernacular music from its humble multi-cultural roots to an earthshaking phenomenon.

We took the short stroll from the hotel to this museum, next to the FedEx Forum, home of the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team and across from the Gibson Guitar company. The tour begins with a brief film giving an overview of the collection’s focus. In several large rooms that follow, an audioguide enables visitors to listen not only to the narrated history as they gaze on photographs, antiquated equipment and other artifacts, but to hear original recordings as well. Middle-aged guests with head-sets can be seen at all times, jiggling, toe-tapping, singing or outright dancing to the rhythms of their youth, and we were no exception! It was Wilson Pickett’s “Wait ‘Til the Midnight Hour” that was my undoing…

Celebrity guitars on display at the Rum Boogie Café.Celebrity guitars on display at the Rum Boogie Café.

Tripping and humming our way across the street, we stopped into The Rum Boogie Café, a restaurant/guitar museum where traditional southern foods were offered; Meat and Two (or Three), which on Saturday was chicken fried steak or fried catfish. Accompaniments included the likes of black-eyed peas, corn pudding, baked beans, coleslaw, yams, fried-green tomatoes. Above our heads hung hundreds of guitars of all kinds, all labeled with names of musicians and other celebrities; over our table we noticed Carl Perkins. Prominent examples sat in wooden frames on the walls; we saw guitars from Billy Joel and U-2 over there. A few minutes wandering around looking up at this amazing memorabilia is a delight for the music fan.

For the afternoon, we had reserved tickets to Graceland for an early afternoon tour. Located some 20 minutes south of downtown Memphis, the Presley complex comprises several buildings, multiple museums including the Elvis fleet of airplanes, and across the road, the mansion itself. At the appointed hour, we lined up and were again issued audioguides, and after a few minutes’ wait, boarded a small bus for the brief ride across Elvis Presley Boulevard to the house and outbuildings.

By today’s standards for superstars, the Presley mansion’s modest scale surprised us, but the eye-popping décor, a combination of the excess of the ’70s and a poor boy’s dream house, more than compensated. The second (bedroom) floor has always been private and remains so, but with our group we filed through a white-carpeted living room, lavish dining room and state-of-the-art (for the time) kitchen that overlooked the “jungle room,” a family room with green shag carpeting on both floor and ceiling, and bizarre furniture. Downstairs we viewed the futuristic TV room and an eclectic billiards/recreation space where Elvis and his friends relaxed.

Several structures have been built behind the house for collections of his gold records, movie memorabilia and other artifacts of his life. A small meditation garden contains the graves of Elvis, his parents and grandmother, as well as a tiny gravestone honoring his stillborn twin brother Jesse. Funeral wreaths and other flowers come from all over the world every week for the garden, and most are displayed.

We boarded the bus to return to the complex on the west side of the boulevard, and marveled at how many employees this enterprise must hire. It’s a whole economy out there! The bus stopped near the Automobile Museum, so we walked through and saw the famous Pink Cadillac, a purple one, and a number of other vintage luxury vehicles owned by Presley, who also was known to give away cars to friends, relatives and even strangers.

The "Duckmaster" at the historic Peabody Hotel, Memphis.The duckmaster at the historic Peabody Hotel, Memphis.

Elvis Presley owned several airplanes, and we toured two of them, a small jet whose psychedelically-hued seats were a personal touch, and the converted Convair 880 jet, the “Lisa Marie.” Elvis and his entourage flew in luxury in the larger plane, with its lounge chairs, conference and dining rooms, bedroom and two baths. We walked through another museum and skipped a couple others, sated by now with Elvis!

Arriving back at the hotel, we saw that crowds had once again filled the lobby for the ducks’ egress from the fountain. It has been a long afternoon, and we are looking forward to a gala dinner at the elegant restaurant just off the lobby, Chez Philippe, also a part of our auction package.

Top photo: Banner at the entrance to Graceland

Read Part 2 here.

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