You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby. Memphis & The Peabody Celebrate with Style

By Jill Gleeson | Photography credits: Memphis CVB, Memphis photo of bridge: Jack Kenner, Other Memphis photos: Phillip Van Zant, Peabody photos: Peabody Hotel, Pink Palace: Bill Walsh

The City of Memphis and The Peabody Hotel are marking significant anniversaries this year,
and both have a lot to celebrate.

Doug Browne, president of Peabody Hotels and Resorts, remembers the event well although it happened back in 2003, the year he began working at The Peabody Memphis as general manager. Former President Jimmy Carter was in town for a book signing, and he was extremely excited to see the hotel’s famed waterfowl waddle down the red carpet and into the lobby fountain.
“The first thing out of his mouth when he arrived was, “When is the duck march?” Browne recalls. “And at 5 p.m., sure enough, he’s there watching the duck march. Of course I’m thinking, “This is huge, we’ve got the ex-president of the United States at our duck march!”
“But Michael Jordan was standing over to the right of him,” Browne continues, “and he’s watching the duck march, and I’m thinking, “This is huge, we’ve got the ex-president of the United States and unquestionably the most famous athlete in the world watching the duck march!’ But then I look up, and sitting on the mezzanine level is Nicolas Cage and Lisa Marie Presley and they’re watching the duck march. I remember I turned to our director of sales and saying, ‘Wow, this is a great day at The Peabody!’ And he said, ‘No, Doug, this is a typical day at The Peabody’.”
And so it goes at Memphis’ grandest hotel, which turns 150 years old this year. The iconic landmark celebrated with a massive renovation that was completed at the beginning of the year. Along with the spectacular Grand Lobby, all 464 guest rooms and suites were remodeled. Come August, Feathers Spa will shut down for the month for a $300,000 facelift. That project will include the addition of three more treatment rooms and a Vichy spa table that will make getting a body scrub and other services even more wonderful than it was before.
If The Peabody’s ability to retain its legendary elegance and beauty is a result of the commitment its owners, the Belz family, have shown toward the property’s upkeep, its continued charm comes courtesy of its employees, says Ken Nelson, director of catering and conference management. “Everyone who works here, we’re more like a family,” he says. “That’s something you don’t find in many hotels, where normally there is a lot of turn over in workers. When we have guests here, it’s like you’re not at our hotel, you’re in our home.”
It could be said that Nelson, a Peabody employee since 1982, is as crucial a part of the hotel’s history as Elvis, who so famously signed a recording contract in its lobby. Certainly he’s made as big a mark on the lives of its guests. “I’m into multi-generational wedding planning now,” he says. “Brides who were married here in the 80s have children who I’m now doing weddings for – it’s wonderful! But what’s really amazing is how many people have met during one of our rooftop parties. People find relationships here, they fall in love here, and they celebrate that love here.”

It seems a safe bet that at least a few relationships will be born at the festive affairs The Peabody is hosting in honor of its big year. The most sumptuous will take place on Sept. 5, with a party in the Grand Lobby, the annual Duck Walk Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and a Continental Ballroom dinner; these events will be followed on Nov. 7 by a Jack Daniels tasting and dinner. Couples who want to really indulge can book the 1869 Package for $1,869. It includes a one-night stay in a Peabody suite, dinner for two at Chez Philippe, a couples massage in Feathers Spa, room service breakfast, a 150th anniversary keepsake of branded Dom Perignon and more.
The Peabody is offering other anniversary goodies, too, like a special Wagyu beef burger with caviar; lobster Chez Philippe is selling for $150. If that still seems a little too rich for your blood, perhaps just think about feteing the Peabody by watching those beloved ducks make their web-footed way into the lobby fountain. Because, as Jack Belz likes to say of his hotel, “The Peabody is the place where people come to relive old memories and make new ones.”

Memphis on the Move
Grind City may be two centuries old this year, but it’s got even more to celebrate in 2019 than its bicentennial. Once known nearly as much for economic struggles and a less-than-ideal crime rate as it was for blues and barbecue, Memphis is currently enjoying a renaissance so golden it might well be making Tennessee’s other booming music metropolis green with envy. Just last year The New York Times reported that tourism in the city had increased a dramatic 13 percent, or by 1.3 million visitors, between 2012 and 2017, while also noting Memphis has seen “$13 billion in over 250 revitalization projects in the past four years…”
If Memphis has a lot to look forward to, it also has some fascinating history to look back on, according to The Pink Palace Family of Museums Marketing Manager Bill Walsh. A number of the institutions are serving up special exhibits in honor of the bicentennial, including the recently renovated Pink Palace itself.
“Making Memphis – 200 Years of Community” touches on five different facets of the city’s history including Art and Entertainment, Migration and Settlement, and Commerce and Entrepreneurialism. “One of the most significant early events we explore is the Yellow Fever epidemic in the early 1800s, which almost wiped Memphis off the map,” says Walsh. “We lost our charter because of it.”
Other exhibits tell the story of Memphis by shining a light on residents like Robert Church, one of the country’s first African-American millionaires, and Madame McCleave, a famed black opera singer back in the day. There is space dedicated to the motel chain Holiday Inn, which got its start in the city, and a display that analyzes the role geography and climate has played in enticing corporations like Fed Ex to base their operations within city borders. It’s an ambitious, fascinating exhibition, and a must-see for any proud Memphian.
Speaking of proud, while Memphis in May already threw the city’s big bicentennial birthday bash, there are still plenty of good times ahead – and in more ways than one, promises Kevin Kern, vice president of communications for Memphis Tourism.
“From festivals celebrating local innovation and civic pride, to cultural events and community service activations, bicentennial celebrations will continue throughout 2019. In Memphis, the party never stops,” says Kern. “At 200, Memphis and Shelby County have even more momentum as we continue to innovate and change the world.”

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.