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Goin' Down to Memphis : The Mississipi River Town Known for Blues 'n' Barbecue Lights Up With New Civic Enticements

August 22, 1993|Christopher Reynolds | Times Travel Writer

MEMPHIS — Five o'clock on a Tuesday, and the river creeps south along the city's western edge. Graceland expels its masses and closes its ornate gates for the night. Along Front Street, where Tom Cruise's on-screen law office stands in "The Firm," the cotton brokers have finished the day's faxes. The aroma of barbecue rises. In the clubs on Beale Street, the music will soon begin.

But here in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, it's already show time.

A 50-foot red carpet is unrolled. A Gray Line tour guide arrives with his clients. Murmurs ripple through the crowd. Flashbulbs pop. Children jostle for position. A Sousa march swells on the sound system. This is not a speech or a ribbon-cutting. This is one of those southern eccentricities William Faulkner used to write about 60 years ago, when he wasn't getting lubricated in this very lobby.

Amid the giddy chatter of the crowd, five domesticated ducks halt their snoozing and splashing around the lobby fountain and array themselves in single file. Then the mallards waddle from the fountain to the elevator. The elevator door closes, and up they ride to their coop on the roof. Then everyone goes home.

The best explanation Memphians can offer for this is that one day in the late 1930s, the hotel's general manager had too much to drink on a hunting expedition to Arkansas and brought back a few of his live decoys to enliven the fountain. The idea was well received, and grew into a daily tradition (along with the 11 a.m. opening of the ducks' workday) in the city's most prominent hotel. Now here we all stand in 1993, paying strange homage.

There is no moral to this anecdote, and there is no understanding Memphis without a little effort. Here is an awkward underdog of a town that gleams with new civic projects, a lively city where two of America's most famous deaths are reconsidered daily. Memphis groans beneath heaps of barbecue, resounds with blues, overflows with confounding details, and all but demands further study.

This is the capital of Mid-Southern culture. The city tends to heat and stickiness in summer, a discomfort to the legions who visit to observe the anniversary of Elvis Presley's death on Aug. 16, 1977. But in fall, the high temperatures pass and leaves of red, orange and yellow accumulate on tree-lined streets.

The cotton business grew up here, and bales once accumulated in tall stacks on Front Street. When you whispered "he's been to Memphis" about someone in Arkansas or Mississippi, you were hinting at a certain sophistication. In 1935, Southern historian David Cohn wrote that "the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg."

Memphis and its 610,000 residents sit on the Mississippi on Tennessee's southwest corner, safely south of the recent flooding that troubled Iowa, Illinois and other river states. If you're riding the train from New Orleans to Chicago, as thousands did during the post-slavery transition from rural to city life, it's a crucial milepost.

In a documentary that is screened regularly at the Center for Southern Folklore on Beale Street, gray-headed singer Rufus Thomas reminisces about the 1920s and '30s, when poor men and women, just up from the country and struggling to get by, put their troubles aside on Saturday evenings. "If you were black for one night on Beale Street," says Thomas, "never would you want to be white again."

But in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated here, and a deep pall was cast over the place. Flight to the suburbs crippled the downtown business district. From 1975 to 1981, the Peabody's doors were locked, its fountain dry. Much of the cotton business had already begun to drift elsewhere.

The headquarters of Federal Express and the business of distribution grew in its place, and Graceland, the memorial to Memphis' second famous death, opened in 1982. About the same time, the city opened the Mud Island Mississippi River Museum and Park--another key location in the film version of "The Firm"--and rebuilt Beale Street as a tourist attraction. Even then, amid the growing flood of Presley pilgrims, the doldrums remained.

Memphis kept pressing. And in the last three years, the city has flung itself, boldly and at great expense, into a new identity. At the core of that identity are a museum, an arena, a trolley line, and a remarkably flush, city-sponsored cultural program.

The National Civil Rights Museum, which took over the old Lorraine Motel where King was shot, opened in September, 1991.

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