The Duck Commander
Local historian Jimmy Ogle fits the bill as the Peabody Hotel’s newest Duckmaster
Interview and Photo by Casey Hilder
Click Magazine: How did you score the job of Duckmaster?
Chef Aryen: [The Peabody] called me about the position five years ago when I was working with the Riverfront Development Corporation to bring back the then-dormant cruise line industry. I had to tell them I was busy at the time, but when the job came open again I would make it the last job I ever had. Five years later they did, so here I am. It’s a fairy tale for me. The position is the ultimate greeting card for the city and like no other in this country.
CM: What are the official duties of the Duckmaster? Did you know what you were walking into?
CA: I didn’t know all of them, but I knew some. The ducks here rotate every three months and there’s always a team of five – one drake and four hens – provided by a local farmer. The previous Duckmaster, Anthony Patrina, was the ultimate coach and cheerleader. I greet the guests, talk history and stories to the people, give directions – this red coat works like a magnet. Of course, the first thing I do when I come in every morning is check the ducks on the roof. I always check for eggs and clean up some of the overnight activity. We roll out the red carpet and march them out for guests at around 11 o’clock every day.
CM: Your new position is kind of an evolution of your role in the city over the years, from working as deputy director of the Memphis Park Commission to giving walking tours around Normal Station and other neighborhoods.
CA: I’ve been giving the neighborhood tours since around 2008. I started as a recreation specialist with the Memphis Park Commission and worked my way up to Deputy Director in 1984. By 1985, I was working in Mud Island as the Interim General Manager. Over the years, I’ve worked with the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, I’ve done Gibson Guitar Factory tours, a few other things. All this time I was working as stat crew for the basketball games at Memphis State.
CM: How did you find time for all this?
CA: Oh, there’s always time.
CM: How did you get started with sidewalk tours?
CA: In ‘08 I made a challenge to the Center City Comission that I could make a manhole cover tour that would draw in more people than the Court Square Program they were hosting that day. As it happens, I did. That’s what gave me the idea to start doing the sidewalk tours. Around that time, I was running a different tour every week – Beale Street, Overton Square, The Pinch. I did 64 free tours this year to celebrate my 64th birthday. The sidewalk tours are my bread and butter, but nowadays I’m getting better at speaking on almost any subject in the city.
CM: Where did the interest in history come from?
CA: Working the local attractions back in the day taught me a lot and they kind of lead into each other. For example, if I had to speak about the history of Mud Island, I had to know a little bit about the river, and so on.
CM: Have you had any celebrity encounters while giving these tours?
CA: Sam Phillips came in while I was giving tours of the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul museum. “Sonny boy,” he says in a deep, booming voice, “Show me your museum.” I was scared to death. But I told him what we did at the museum and then I asked what it meant to him. I learned a lot by doing that. I did the same with people like Ernest Withers, BB King, Wink Martindale and Rufus Thomas.
CM: What’s the toughest part of your job?
CA: Trying to get the adults to cooperate. The kids are easy!
CM: Where do you get your information?
CA: I’ve read more than 400 books on Memphis in my life and still counting. I took one history class in my life and that was from Dr. Charles Crawford at Memphis State University in 1973. A few years ago, I competed with Dr. Crawford for the position of Shelby County Historian.
CM: How’s life at The Peabody?
CA: It’s the center of the known universe, right here. Not just Memphis -- but all the universe – here in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel. In 1981, this was the catalyst for bringing back the downtown district. There was a time when more people were living in jail than living downtown. So naturally, the city builds a bigger jail – one that is the only building in the city better known by its number than its name: 201. And that’s what we had -- no convention centers, no hotels, nothing. Beale Street was fenced off from ’77 to ’83. Not a single business was open but A. Schwab. The Peabody was the first big project that opened. Followed by Mud Island in July of ’82 and part of Beale Street in ’83. Year by year, we started to see more things like the Civil Rights Museum, the trolley and before you know it, there’s 25,000 people living downtown, more than 100 restaurants, 15 museums and 10 million tourists a year.
CM: Peabody plans for the holiday?
CA: We’ve got the hotel decked out and the wreaths up all around. The tree lighting took place November 25 and we’ll be hosting a different classical choir in the lobby fromnow until December 19.
CM: What’s the secret to giving a good tour?
CA: Be honest and know your facts. You can have a sense of humor, but I’d rather be known for telling the truth.
CM: Do you ever plan to write a book?
CA: Not with the way I talk – it’d be one long run-on sentence!
The position of Duckmaster is not one to be taken lightly. Just ask Jimmy Ogle, who took on the official position with the Peabody Hotel this past September. Ogle, a native Memphian, will go down in history as the sixth official Duckmaster at the Peabody. Before donning the iconic red coat, Ogle, 64, has spent a lifetime in careers celebrating the rich history of Memphis and the Mid-South. He now leads the time honored tradition of guiding a quintet of North American mallards down the red carpet to the tune of John Philip Sousa’s “King Cotton March” five days a week at 11 a.m. sharp.