By Roger Allnutt
Five mallard ducks almost upstaged Elvis on my recent visit to Memphis
About 80 years ago the manager of the fashionable and very stately Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis introduced a ‘show’ where some ducks paraded out of a lift and across the carpet to plunge into the pool of an ornate fountain in the middle of the bar/lounge area. This event caused great delight and subsequently, with the help of a “duck trainer,” this attraction has for years occurred twice every day.
The ducks come down in the ornate lift from the duck palace on the roof at exactly 11 a.m. and then spend the rest of the day in the pool before returning for the night at 5 p.m. Families gather beside the red carpet extending from the lift to the fountain, all keeping off the carpet less the now five mallard ducks be distracted. The delight on everyone’s faces is very evident. The “squad” of ducks is replaced ever three months so that the veteran performers can be returned to the wild. The event is free.
The Peabody has always been an institution in Memphis, although in the 1970s it nearly closed as the city went through tough economic times. Many U.S. presidents have stayed there, and the main ballroom is very grand. The Tommy Dorsey played there in their heyday. Nowadays it is a highly desirable accommodation.
Going to Graceland
Of course, the main attraction for most visitors to Memphis is Graceland, the home for some years of Elvis Presley before his untimely death in 1977 at the age of 42. The queues form early to join the well-organized tour of the mansion, which is surprisingly small. To avoid crowding the throughput of the house is well streamlined and although you can book pre-arranged tour times most people take pot luck. We only waited about 20 minutes to take the shuttle bus from the “headquarters” (on the opposite side of Elvis Presley Boulevard) to the house, which is set in colorful grounds.
Entering through the front door of the mansion (pictured, left), the tour encompasses a series of rooms including foyer, dining room, lounge, jungle room, study and bedroom. You can see the grand piano where Elvis composed many of his famous hits. Next you travel through the kitchen to the downstairs area which includes Elvis’s TV room and pool room.
Outside the mansion other buildings cover his amazing collection of gold and platinum records, while what was originally a racquetball court contains examples of his iconic jumpsuits and jewelry. Elvis was keen on horses and the stables and some horses in a paddock are reminders of his interest.
The meditation garden contains the graves of Elvis and family members where people pause to pay their respects.
Back at headquarters the Automobile Museum has a large collection of vehicles from a white Rolls Royce to Elvis’ famous 1955 pink Cadillac (pictured, right). Other rooms show video clips from his movies while outside his two personal jets are on show. The many gift shops around the complex were doing a roaring trade! If you want a nostalgia kick arrange your accommodations at the Heartbreak Hotel next door to the Graceland headquarters.
The birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll
Memphis is often regarded as the birthplace of rock and roll and there are a number of places where you can absorb some of the history. Sun Studio was the place where Elvis and many other stars launched their careers, while the Memphis Rock N’ Soul Museum highlights the birth of rock and soul music with exhibits covering clothing, musical instruments, recording equipment, rare film footage, photographs and vintage jukeboxes from the 1920s and beyond.
A newer addition is the Blues Hall of Fame with interactive displays covering many famous blues artists. I enjoyed listening to the piano music of Ray Charles and Fats Domino.
Beale Street is synonymous with the blues and this historic street comes alive every night with many venues offering live entertainment as well as good food and a great atmosphere.
Civil Rights heritage sites
On April 4, 1968, the preacher and civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated on the balcony outside of his room (#306) at the Lorraine Motel south of downtown Memphis. The tragedy brought the long-running civil rights movement in the United States and in particular the events following the desegregation of public schools in the 1950s into world focus.
The Lorraine Motel (pictured, left) has now been incorporated into the National Civil Rights Museum – a most powerful series of exhibits tracing the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the 17th century to the present. Using documentary, film, posters, speeches and multimedia and interactive techniques, a visit to the museum is a powerful experience. The key period covering the attempts to enroll African American students in white schools and the desegregation of buses, the legal proceedings, racial tension and most evocatively the speeches by Rev. King, including his historic “I have a dream” speech at a rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC in August 1963, are brilliantly conveyed. A bus complete with voice demanding a black passenger give up her seat is very moving.
One last exhibit covers the off-the-cuff speech King made a day before his assassination, during which many commentators claim he seemed to predict the fateful shot. The bedroom and sitting room of the unit of the era have been recreated, adding to the atmosphere.
On exiting the museum we noticed a line up of people (and tour buses) outside a local café – Central BBQ, one of three such restaurants in Memphis specializing in ribs and other meats. You get large helpings, so much so that two people can share one order.
Memphis’ urban landscape
Unlike many large American cities, Memphis does not have many tall buildings or glitzy skyscrapers. It seems content to live comfortably with its past. The main streets are wide and easy to negotiate. Along the Mississippi River which divides the main city area (in Tennessee) and West Memphis (in Arkansas), are a number of pleasant riverside parks perfect for a picnic. When we were there one of the many festivals that are a feature of Memphis was being held, attracting large crowds to public spaces.
Throughout the suburban area are small enclaves of large mansions usually set in expansive grounds with well-maintained gardens. An old historic area around Adams Ave just east of downtown contains some fine old mansions; the Mallory Neely mansion built in 1852 is open for inspection on Friday and Saturday. The house retains all of its original historic interiors, furniture and artifacts.
For more information on visiting Memphis check the website www.memphistravel.com.
Roger Allnutt was assisted by the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.