In this special profile piece, we are sharing the story of Kenon Walker, The Peabody Hotel Duckmaster, in his own words. Join us in reading about how Mr. Walker came to hold one of the city's most prestigious and fantastical titles.
Photos by Houston Cofield.
Originally, I'm from Memphis, but I spent my teenage years living in Atlanta because my mom had taken a job there. My mom put me in a theater camp at the Alliance Theater Company in Atlanta when I was 13-years-old to keep me out of trouble for the summer.
Something about improv just caught my attention. The riffing, the coming up with stuff off the top of your head. I guess I just got bitten by the acting bug, so to speak.
For me, it was an outlet because I grew up with very humble beginnings. But, acting gave me a chance to step into another pair of shoes and look at life through a different set of eyes. I could literally be somebody else with these characters. I just never stopped. The longer I acted, the better the work started getting and it just kind of kept evolving over time.
Acting led to stage plays, commercials, voice-over work, short and feature films, and pretty much every area of acting.
I am thankful for growing up in Atlanta, which I feel was in its 'heyday' in the '90s. That's when it was just becoming what it is today. It was a real go-getter place where you had to hustle and move fast. So, moving from Memphis to Atlanta, I developed this artistic, hustler kind of mentality. It forced me to have a different work ethic than many people around me had when I moved back to Memphis.
I never want to speak down on Memphis, but it's definitely a slower-moving city than Atlanta. It's easy to get stuck in ruts here, but I've always been trying to find the next thing to get involved with, which I feel is an Atlanta mindset.
When I was growing up, Atlanta was a hub for music. You would see all of these hometown heroes like TLC, OutKast, Kriss Kross, and Usher around town like it was nothing. Back then, you had to play a lot of shows and be around town to make it because you couldn't just hop on Facebook or Instagram and promote yourself. Just growing up and experiencing all of these people blow up to the worldwide superstars they are now. It made me realize that big things were possible.
Just growing up and experiencing all of these people blow up to the worldwide superstars they are now. It made me realize that big things were possible.
Another huge influence of mine was my uncle, O'Landa Draper, a gospel artist from Memphis. I kind of grew up under his guidance and watched his career. I saw him and his choir, The Associates, perform and be nominated at the Grammy's. I watched him win Stellar awards. Watching him kind of showed me anything is possible, but it also takes a lot of dedication, determination and work.
Being around him taught me to think outside of the box. I literally saw him rehearsing with his band in my grandmother's house on Bishop Bridge Road by the airport in a shed. Then I saw him turn that into a record deal. Then I saw him on the cover of cassette tapes. I fully credit him for making me believe anything is possible.
A lot of work has to be done to make things like that happen, but with dedication, persistence, patience, and most importantly, passion for what you're doing, I fully believe things will pay off.
Some people work for fame and fortune, and there is nothing wrong with that. But, if you're an artist, you should be doing it primarily for the artistry. Things grow and evolve from there, and there will be a greater appreciation for your work.
Anyway, in '98, I graduated from Wheeler High School in Atlanta. I moved from Atlanta to Senatobia, Mississippi, to go to Northwest Community College. Things were rough in Atlanta. I had gotten in some trouble and just needed to go somewhere to get a new start. Memphis is only 33 miles from Senatobia, and I wanted to be closer to my family, who still lived in Memphis.
That semester I was waiting to move to Senatobia, but the apartments I was supposed to move into were full, so I had to wait until the next semester to start. Unfortunately, during that period, my uncle unexpectedly passed.
So, I was in Senatobia, where I knew nobody. My uncle, who was my most significant influence, my driving force, the one positive male influence I had in my life, was gone. My grandmother has just lost her son. And I was kind of in this state of limbo. I was trying to figure everything out. I was just 19, so I could only help my grandmother so much. I was kind of a troubled kid trying to make a fresh start. At that point, I just kind of broke down. I felt that I had exhausted every option to make something of my life, but nothing worked.
I was in a small country town where Walmart was the biggest thing. They referred to Memphis as 'the city.' I was like, 'Where am I?' But, it kind of forced me to stand still. What is this? But it forced me to stand still. I was one of the few people on that campus that wasn't from Mississippi. On the weekends, everyone would go home. The campus would be empty, and I'd still be there. I was by myself a lot at that time.
It was then I decided that I wanted to stop looking at life as just existing; I wanted to start living.
I started to become a bit more spiritual. Not really religious, so to speak, but I gave up trying to control my own destiny. I began to ask why I was here and what the purpose was. Why am I passionate about the things I'm passionate about? What will make me feel fulfilled? It was then I decided that I wanted to stop looking at life as just existing; I wanted to start living. So I started trying to attach myself to things that made me feel whole. Things that helped other people. Things that made me feel like my life mattered.
Looking at life from that perspective led me to everything that came after that. I'm still a very spiritual person, and I try to act based on feelings. Some of the things that may seem like great opportunities that everyone else would jump on just don't make sense or add to my purpose, so I just let those things go. Operating in purpose has led me to where I am now, and I'm thankful for that.
At the time, I was going to school as a TV broadcasting major. Radio was huge at the time, and there was a huge culture surrounding it, especially in Atlanta.
But when I started taking the classes for the major, I just didn't have the same passion for it that I had felt for acting. So I changed my major to communications and minored in drama. But, as you might expect, there really weren't a lot of acting opportunities in Senatobia, so I moved to the Southaven campus.
I decided to move back to Memphis and lived with my grandmother since it was close to enough to commute. It just so happened that a woman named Myra Moses, who was in my uncle's choir, had become a playwright herself.
She knew that I wanted to become an actor, so she involved me in her plays. So the first plays that I did in Memphis were with her, most of which were at the World Overcomers Church, the one with the big Statue of Liberation in the front. There were 3,000 plus people at every show. The feeling of being on stage, in front of all of those people, is like nothing else. Acting in the theater, as opposed to film, gives you this immediate response, you feel the feedback from the crowd, and it just felt like what I was supposed to be doing. So from that point, I never stopped acting.
That's not to say that acting was my only passion. I also loved music and spent a lot of time freestyling and eventually turned that into songwriting. Music became my diary, and I would reflect on it when I'd find myself alone. It was my way of making sense of some of the things I was going through. It helped me start making amends for things I had done and needed to grow past. I was putting my story into songs. Music and acting were my driving forces for a long time.
I did not finish North West; I got kicked out. Growing up an only child, I was always a fighter. I went to four high schools in four years. And then went to two separate campuses at the same college and got kicked out for fighting. It was a self-defense kind of thing, but I was always the new kid everywhere I went. Maybe it was being an only child; perhaps it was being raised in a certain environment. I'm not sure, but I was fearless. But I started trying to channel that negative energy, that frustration, into acting and music —channeling that into things that made me grow versus things that were a detriment.
So, I was living with my grandmother, and I was working at these factories called Darby and Orgill Brothers. I worked at those two the longest, but I've probably worked at almost every factory in Memphis.
Around this same time, I had my first stint at the Peabody Hotel. I was looking for a new job, and I had a friend who worked here that recommended me. So, I applied to be a front desk agent, got the job, and became the Employee of the Year in December. But, I ended up hopping around jobs and just kept trying to pursue acting and music.
In 2004 Ruff Ryder Records had a freestyle championship competition here in Memphis. It was a two-month-long competition where you had to come and freestyle battle the previous winners week after week. I ended up winning the entire competition. It was supposed to lead to a flight to New York to meet with Waah Dean, who was the CEO and win $5,000 cash.
But, the person who put on that championship ended up murdering his wife. So it all fell apart, and he's spending the rest of his life in prison. Music was my thing. I went by Slim Riggs and would hear myself on the radio. I really thought I had made it, and I was crushed.
I spent the next year getting over it and was working for a delivery dispatch service called CSI at the time. I was the person who you would talk to on the phone when you would get some large appliance or something shipped to your house. I was walking on Beale Street and found a flier on the ground for an open audition for a movie called "Tricks."
It was a Saturday, and I'll never forget it. I walked into work, got in my cubicle, and saw my manager. I asked him if I could go to this audition at noon. I told him it would only take a few minutes and explained that I felt like I really needed to go.
He just said, 'Nah, man. Can't let you go, bro. I need you. I need you.' I don't know if I prayed or whatever it was, but I just really searched in my spirit for what I should do. I knew if I didn't go, I'd always regret it. I knew that without a doubt. If I don't go down there, I will regret this for the rest of my life. So, I started taking the pictures and everything down off my cubicle. I worked with a bunch of women, and they asked what I was doing. I told them about the audition and how the manager wouldn't let me go. I said, 'I'm gone. I quit. I have to go.' They also started cheering. I went, and I ended up getting the lead male role in the film.
The guy who shot that film was Rod Pitts, and when he started working on another movie called "100 Lives." There was a role for a character named Diablo, who was kind of the movie's villain, but it had already been cast by a local rapper. But Rod had told the director, Phillip Darius Wallace, about me and really helped get me an audition. Well, they picked me and recast the role. So, we filmed it in 2007, and it was released in 2009.
In between those projects, I was still performing around town. Around the same time, I got in touch with a playwright named Levi Fraizer, whom I had worked with before.
Levi was a pioneer in the early days of Memphis theater and is legendary in his own right in Memphis. He was writing an interactive exhibit, 'A Living History' tour, for the National Civil Rights Museum and cast me to play a character named Randy, a fictional character who was on the bus when Rosa Parks wouldn't change seats.
During that summer, the tours had live actors in certain spots that would 'come to life and act out these moments from history on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. So I was playing this character Randy, and I'd be waiting on the back of the bus for the kids to turn the corner, and then I'd hop off the bus like, 'Everybody! You've got to see what's going on! Miss Parks, she won't get up. Come on!' Then I would teach people about the bus boycotts and the sit-ins. This was really a transitional period in my life.
I'd spend a lot of time just waiting for people, so I would just read and read everything I could in that museum in my spare time. I'd take notes in every room of that building.
I was overwhelmed with history, and we are being affected by that history today. That job gave me a chance to perform for people like Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac. But there was one lady who I still credit to this day for giving me the opportunity to change my life — Beverly Robertson, the President of the National Civil Rights Museum.
The Living History Tour was ending, but I wanted to stay to become a tour guide. I really wanted to help teach that history to people. So, I went to the Head of Education and Interpretation at the time and asked if there were any positions available. They said, 'No, not right now.' So I kept coming up to the museum, and I kept studying. I'd ask again, and they'd say, 'Not right now.' But, I felt that it was what I really needed to be doing, so I asked if there were any volunteer opportunities, maybe I could volunteer. 'No.'
In my spirit, I knew I was supposed to be there. My path led me here from everything that I've done. I know that God didn't lead me somewhere to slam a door in my face. I know I'm supposed to be here.
So, one day I was at the museum taking notes. Beverly Robertson came up to me and said, 'Kenon, what are you doing?' I told her I was taking notes, and she asked if I had a few minutes to come to talk with her in her office. So, we went to her office and sat down at her desk.
In my spirit, I knew I was supposed to be there. My path led me here from everything that I've done. I know that God didn't lead me somewhere to slam a door in my face. I know I'm supposed to be here.
She said, 'I've been in and out of town the past few weeks, and I haven't really gotten a chance to talk to you. But I can't seem to keep my inbox empty because I get all these emails about Randy. I knew nobody who worked here's name was Randy, but I saw your performance. And, I saw how the kids would get excited when you would hop off the bus. Then I saw you taking notes. What are you doing here? What is it you want to do?'
This was the question that changed my life. My immediate response was, 'I would love to stay on staff and become a tour guide. I'm overwhelmed with the information that's in here. In awe of the fact, Dr. King gave his life here. I want to teach this to people. I want them to feel how I feel just by being in these walls. I want to find a way to bring these exhibits to life.'
She asked, 'So you want to be a tour guide? No problem. We'll hire you full-time with benefits. But that's not what I'm asking you. I'm asking you, 'What do you want to do?'
That was the first time in my life that somebody asked me what my purpose was. At that moment, I realized that I wanted to educate and inspire people through arts and entertainment. 'I want to change lives artistically by teaching history to people and being an example of what's possible. I've been through a lot, but I'm here. And I know everything I've been through is for a reason. Right?'
She looked at me and said, 'I want you to know I believe in you.'
First, she gave me a job as a tour guide. Then she allowed me to adjust the tours. The tour guides had scripts with lists of facts on paper at the time. They were just reading off of the sheet and pointing to stuff. I knew that this history deserved better. This information is too important to be taught that way. So, she allowed me to take each exhibit and find a way to do reenactments and demonstrations to make the guests feel like they were a part of the history.
For example, the 'sit-in movement.' I would pick six people and ask them to sit down at the counter we had in the museum for that section. I'd prearrange everyone else around them and kind of paint the scenario. 'We're going into a restaurant during a time where we can't eat together.' I'd try and help it make sense to the kids, so I'd use hair color instead of skin color. 'Your hair is red, and his hair is black. Do you like cheeseburgers? What if I told you you can't eat a cheeseburger because your hair is red? Is that fair? No? Why? Because you like cheeseburgers too?
Well, this happened. An entire race of people was not allowed to walk through that front door only because of the color of their skin. People of different colors couldn't eat at restaurants together, they couldn't sit in the movies together, and they couldn't ride buses together. So we're going to do something about it, but we're going to do something non-violent about it. We're going to go inside this restaurant together, knowing what we're doing is against the rules, but we're going to try to sit down and order a cheeseburger and be served. Now, nine times out of ten, the people standing around us will not be too happy about what we're doing.'
Then I'd show the picture of the actual events — images of people having coffee poured on them, being pulled out of chairs, and people screaming at them.
Next, I'd ask half of the crowd to almost mob around the people sitting, yelling, 'Get out of here!'
I'd orchestrate everyone's screaming, in an appropriate way for a museum, of course. Then I'd talk to the people sitting in.' I'd whisper behind them, 'Someone just poured coffee on you; someone just yanked your chair from under you.'
At that point, I make everyone sitting stay quiet. 'This is the only rule. None of us get to fight back. None of us can say a word. All you can do is protect yourself non-violently. Get back up off the floor if you can, and sit right back down in your seat.'
Then I'd ask, 'Now who in here can imagine going through that?'
Those tours became transformative, not just for the people involved but for me too. I felt I was becoming a vessel for teaching that history. Eventually, that led me to become a VIP tour guide. I'm the one who took all the celebrities, politicians, and civil rights activists on the tours. When the Freedom Awards happened, I would be the guide for the recipients on the tour. I was 27-years-old, and I was giving a tour to the Dalai Lama, who was at the museum. Keep in mind I was someone who had been kicked out of school. Someone who'd been at fault their whole life. Everywhere I had gone prior, I had been told, 'No.' But there I was, educating the Dalai Lama on the civil rights movement just feet from where Dr. King gave his life. Civil rights leaders were requesting me to give the tour.
The people who made the history wanted me to tell their story. For the first time in my life, I felt genuinely operating in purpose.
I spent the next few years working there and hosting tours. But in 2012, they closed the museum for two years so they could renovate it to what it is now.
It turned out that Beverly Robertson's husband, Howard Robertson, was the board chairman over at the Stax Museum and Soulsville. It turned out that on the tour I gave to the Dalai Lama, the then president of the Stax Museum, Lisa Allen, was on that tour with Howard and Beverly. It had really moved her, and she wanted something like that for the Stax Museum, which at the time only had a self-guided tour.
So they gave me the opportunity to single-handedly create the tour for the museum and write a whole tour guide training curriculum. I got a chance to interview actual Stax artists when preparing for the tour. They'd tell me their personal stories and memories. I interviewed the sole survivor of the plane crash that killed Otis Redding. I met Booker T, Steve Cropper, and many more critical musical figures.
I stayed there for four and a half years, spearheading the tour guide department and being a frontline supervisor for the museum. That job put me in touch with the Brooks Museum, which was hosting a film screening for Stax. They had asked Al Bell, one of the owners of Stax, to introduce the film, and they asked me to introduce Al Bell.
Then somebody within the public events department at the Brooks liked how I introduced the film and offered me a job hosting the film series every Thursday night. Eventually, I left Stax and went on to work at the Brooks Museum full time as a public events manager. Life had led me there. I never filled out an application in that whole transition – From Levi casting me as Randy to Beverly allowing me to reimagine the tour to being asked to create a tour for Stax to working at the Brooks.
My point is that by operating in purpose, people saw me. They saw my passion, enthusiasm, and appreciation for doing something that made me feel full
My point is that by operating in purpose, people saw me. They saw my passion, enthusiasm, and appreciation for doing something that made me feel full, and they offered me these opportunities. None of this was strategic planning. I never said, 'I'd like to work as a tour guide, and maybe I'll develop tours for museums one day. Then I'll host films!' It all happened organically. That's been the case in many things in my life, even with acting and music. I still don't have an agent, a manager, a publicist or a team of people. Every film that I've done just happened. They've all been organic connections. You work on one project, and somebody refers or requests you for another.
While I was working at the Brooks, I was offered a business opportunity with a couple friends of mine. So I quit my job to go on this venture. And the rug ended up being pulled out from under our feet by the person we were going into business with.
From that point, there was a struggle period. My daughter was still very young, and I felt like I was out of options. I probably could have gone back to the Brooks or Stax in some capacity, but I guess I was just going where my path was leading me. I knew I didn't want to go backward.
My daughter's mother opened a restaurant during that time, so I helped her run it, or at least tried to. That failed, and I was miserable doing it because that industry is definitely not my passion.
I got a job at the FedEx hub working the night shift and tried to help her run the restaurant. She ended up closing the restaurant. I needed some money because I wouldn't get paid at the restaurant a lot of times. After all, we were trying to make sure the staff got paid. So there was a lot of suffering for me during that time.
To be honest with you, I humbled myself, and I called James. I said, 'Look, man, I'm looking for a job. I don't care what it is. If there's anything you think I could do, I'll do it.
A good friend and fellow artist, James Cook, was a general manager at Lenny's sub shop in the airport.
To be honest with you, I humbled myself, and I called James. I said, 'Look, man, I'm looking for a job. I don't care what it is. If there's anything you think I could do, I'll do it.
He gave me a job, and I worked there for six months. That's when I got a call from Scott Boucher, the Director of Operations at the Peabody Hotel.
Again, I had worked at the Peabody maybe 15 years earlier, but certain relationships I'd built with people lasted throughout that time.
Specifically, a woman named Pat Johnson worked in the sales department and was truly like a second mother to me. Almost every month, I would come to check on Pat, say hello, you know. Over the years, I've met other people in management. They didn't know who I was. They thought that Miss Pat just had a son that did plays that she talks about.
Anyway, I got this call from Scott. He thought that I was still working at the Civil Rights Museum and told me there was a VIP at the hotel who wanted a tour and asked if I had any openings. I told him, 'Well, I don't work there anymore, but I've been picking up shifts with a tour company called Tour of Possibilities. They were a small tour company that focused on African American city tours. It was started by a woman named Carolyn Banks, who I worked with at Stax and had kept in touch with.
I told him, 'Well, I can't take them on a museum tour because I'm not an employee of the museum, but I could take them on the Tour of Possibilities. But, hey, since I have you on the phone, If you know of any good opportunities at the Peabody that you think I might be good for, please let me know. I'm looking to maybe change things up.'
He asked, 'Are you serious? We have a concierge position open now. If you want the job, go on the website, fill it out, put my name down, and call me back when you're done.'
I filled out the application and called him back. I had no idea that a phone call would again change my life.
He told me to come in, and we could do my panel interviews and final interviews in one day. So when I went into the panel interviews, I knew pretty much everyone at the table because I'd seen them over the years by visiting Miss Patt.
They hired me, and I became a concierge in October of 2018. That's the only reason I came here. I knew I didn't want a nerve-wracking job. I knew I didn't want to manage a bunch of young 20-somethings. I knew I didn't want to deal with the hustle and bustle of the airport sandwich shop.
The Duckmaster at the time was a guy named Anthony Petrina, who had been at the job for around nine years. His assistant Duckmaster was an older gentleman named Doug Weatherford, who also served as the hotel's historian.
I saw him giving a tour through the hotel one day, and I told him I had no idea they gave tours here. After talking a bit, he found out I was a historian as well, so we kind of bonded over that. We'd talk a lot on the days that he'd march the ducks because he would be in the lobby. About three and half months after I started, Anthony retired, making Doug the new Duckmaster. He needed an assistant to take over on his off days. One day he approached me and said, 'Kenon, I've been watching you.' I was like, 'For What?' He said, 'I think you really have what it takes to become a successful Duckmaster. Would you want to give it a try?'
'No,' I said.
And, I'll tell you why I said no. I had just been promoted from being the lobby concierge to being the private club floor concierge one week before. I had my own floor, lounge, hor d'oeuvres and a private bar. I hosted the happy hour for the club floor guests from five to seven. It was just me up there, and it just felt where I was supposed to be. The tips were great, and I was meeting great people. There was no micromanaging, and I created this experience for people. But he looked at me and said, 'Really, really think about it. Just think about it.'
But he looked at me and said, 'Really, really think about it. Just think about it.'
There was an implied raise, but where I was at just felt more lucrative at the time. I felt at home there. I loved it. I genuinely connected with people on the club floor.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I told Doug 'No,' six times. When he asked me the seventh time, I was like, 'Man, you are so adamant about this. What do you see that I am don't?'
I prayed about it that night. I woke up the following day, and I had a complete sense of peace. I wanted to try it out. But, honestly, part of my hesitation was the fact that I had never seen a Duckmaster who looked like me.
Being a historian, I know the history behind the hotel. I knew it was a segregated hotel founded by a Confederate veteran. I knew that this was a place of servitude for black people for generations.
There was one black Duckmaster before I ultimately accepted the job — Edward Pembroke, the very first Duckmaster. He held the title for 51 years, but there was never another black Duckmaster. Of course, Black men had marched the ducks since, but not as the Duckmaster.
In my mind, I thought that I was gonna have to encounter all kinds of racism and discrimination. I thought people would look at me funny and ask where the real Duckmaster was.
That's partially why I said no, so many times, but on February 23rd, 2019, I officially took the job as Assistant Duckmaster. And I'll tell you, the first time I stepped out there, you could hear a pin drop. Everybody was hooked on every word I was saying. I felt what I felt at the theater. I also felt how I did hosting those interactive tours.
Everything that I have done up to this point prepared me for this moment: the plays, the tours, the acting, the history.
I like to think I brought something to it that hadn't been done before. I'm not speaking negatively of anybody who paved the path for me. But when I stepped out there, I felt like I took a different approach to it.
Anyway, I worked as the club floor concierge for three days a week and was the Assistant Duckmaster on Sundays and Mondays. As it turns out, more and more people started showing up on those two days.
That was my routine until early 2020 when we started hearing these rumors about a virus in China. The club floor was closed, so I lost most of my shifts. I pretty much missed an entire week of work. But, it just so happened that Doug retired without any notice that week, and I was asked to take over his schedule.
So, I assumed the role of Duckmaster. But we all know what happened that March – The pandemic hit, and the entire world changed. I don't care what your background is. I don't care what your financial status is. Every single person was affected by this virus.
The Peabody went down to two floors and operated at less than five percent capacity. We had no idea what was going to happen. They had to furlough almost all of the staff, including myself.
But, the ducks still marched. So, even though nobody was in the lobby and there was no Duckmaster, the staff there made sure to march those ducks.
Like many of you, I sat at home for three months and collected unemployment, which was a nice break in hindsight.
What got me out of the house during that time was the protests when George Floyd and Briona Taylor were murdered. I watched the demonstrations online and saw them as they swept into Memphis. I remember sitting at home watching Facebook Live, and I saw a march was organizing outside the National Civil Rights Museum. So I knew I had to be there. I have to get out of the house. I have a responsibility to participate in these marches. And I marched for five days straight.
But, I started seeing division amongst the leadership of the different groups leading these marches. I literally saw people arguing back and forth. 'Who's doing it right? Why are they doing it this way? Is he doing it for attention?' I realized I was following people who had no real direction and just asked myself, 'What am I doing?' I kind of silently prayed to myself as I was marching. I said, 'God, what can I do? What can I possibly do as an individual to make some kind of change?'
I looked up and realized we were walking down Second Street right in front of the Peabody.
I looked up at the building and the people looking out the window. That's when it hit me. 'I need to get back to work. I'm the Duckmaster. That's my outlet. That's my platform. That's how I can reach people.'
It's important that someone who looks like me has a position like that, especially when there is all of this friction between people right now. When I get back to that place, I will be a symbol of hope – a symbol of joy. I want to be the person who gets to break this whole monotony of people being locked in the house when they start traveling again.
It's important that someone who looks like me has a position like that, especially when there is all of this friction between people right now. When I get back to that place, I will be a symbol of hope – a symbol of joy.
So when I got back to the Peabody, I became the first masked Duckmaster. I started the Red Carpet Team, where I let kids roll out the carpet for the ducks in the lobby. I began letting kids and guests help me feel the ducks. I really believe that some of the most simple things can make a massive difference in somebody's life. I'd see grown men crying because their children were having fun for the first time in months.
I think that in that time, something happened. I feel like I was more than just the Duckmaster. Videos of the marches started going viral online, and the ducks became kind of famous past the hotel. I think a lot of people thought this was something new. I'll never forget this one day my daughter came up to me, and she's like, 'Daddy, daddy, you're a trending topic on Tik Tok!' I said, 'That's awesome, baby. What's a Tik Tok?' So she started pulling up these videos of me marching the ducks, and they had millions of views. I realized that what I was doing was reaching far beyond these walls, far outside Memphis.
I truly felt that I was operating out of purpose through these Duck Marches.
The Duck March was one of the only things you could do in Memphis during the summer of the pandemic. Zoos and museums were closed, but our lobby was open. I think really simple things affected people more when the pandemic started. You could genuinely really connect with people by just showing some kindness. I really feel that something as simple as a duck march can make a difference in somebody's life.
I don't do anything for fame or attention. It's never been my aspiration to be a superstar. I just want to be an example of what's possible through faith.
For whatever reason, people see you differently when you wear this uniform. When you're talking to me, you're still talking to Kennon. But the words that come out of my mouth with this red jacket have a lot more impact. I'm standing on the sidewalk, and I pass by you in my regular clothes, and I say, 'Hey, man! Have a great day!' That guy passing by probably wouldn't even think twice of it. But inside these walls, I say, 'Hey, man! Have a great day,' I get a completely different response even though it's just a change of clothes.
When I have these encounters with people, whether kids or adults, it's still me. The Duckmaster is not a character; it's me. It may be a performance during the ceremony, but I'm the one performing.
The bonds and connections I've made in this position are genuinely overwhelming. But, it's also incredibly humbling because none of this was my plan. I never said, 'I want to be the Duckmaster.' But, everything I've ever done in my life led me here.
I'm the second official African American Duck Master in history after Mr. Pennbrook. So now, a whole generation of kids that look like me have the opportunity to see someone who looks like them in this public position. I never felt included in the Duck March when I was a kid. Before moving to Atlanta, we never came to the Duck March. I never even stepped foot into the Peabody. It never seemed like it was for someone like me.
Now I'm looking around. I'm seeing brown kids. I'm seeing white kids. I'm seeing Mexican kids. I'm seeing Indian kids. I'm seeing people from all over the world, and they get to see somebody who looks like me in this position.
And you never know who you might meet and where these paths will lead you.
When I was an assistant Duckmaster and was still working in the lounge as a concierge, I met a group of people who I later learned were film producers. Before I found that out, I told them about myself – the movies I'd been in, my music, theater.
They were producing a film with David Arquette called "12 Hour Shifts." When they came back the next year to film another project, they put me in touch with David. He sent a message to them saying, 'Tell him he's my hero!' I wondered. 'What does he mean by that? That makes no sense. Oh, I guess the "Duckmaster character" is what he's talking about.'
I will never forget it, but I didn't have an honorary Duckmaster that day, which meant I was marching the ducks by myself. So, when I was marching the ducks back up to the Duck Palace, I recorded this private Duck March on my phone for David. I said, 'I heard you said I was your hero. I mean, I don't know what to say. I'm very humbled by that. I appreciate it. And I heard that you have a big passion for ducks. I heard you even have a tattoo of ducks on your arm, which means that your passion for ducks probably outweighs mine a little bit, so I figured I'd do something special for you.'
I sent it to the woman I had met in the concierge lounge that also starred in "12 Hour Shift". She sent that video to David. An hour later, I got this FaceTime call from David Arquette. I was just kind of in awe, but I answered. He expressed his appreciation for the video. He told me why the ducks meant so much to him. When he and Courtney Cox were married. They had a hard time conceiving. They tried everything, and nothing worked. But then, one day, they were on the beach in Malibu, and a family of ducks came walking by. A mother duck in the front, baby ducks in the middle and a proud father duck walking in the back. They took that as a sign from a higher power that they would be a family. So they took a test, and sure enough, she was pregnant with their daughter, who is now 17.
That's why he has a tattoo of ducks on his forearm. So when I sent him this video of the ducks marching for him, it had a deep sentimental meaning to him. Apparently, he went to sleep that night, and when he woke up, he wrote a treatment for a film he wanted to make with me called "the Duckmaster." Taylor and her mother called me and said, 'Hey, I love that video. It affected David so much that he woke up and wrote a treatment for a film he wants to make with you.' In my mind, I was like, 'What? No, no, no... No way this is real. You can't be serious!' She said, 'He's serious, and he wants to know if you're willing to star in the film and help write it. Because without you, there is no film.'
I said, 'Of course.' So the next day, he drove from Jonesboro, Arkansas — where they were filming a movie — to meet me in person.
We met at the Summer Drive-In because they showed a trailer for the documentary, "You Cannot Kill David Arquette." Which is an excellent documentary, by the way. Then we came back to the Peabody and talked for hours. I asked him if he had seen the Duck March before, and he said, 'Yeah! I saw you a year ago when we were filming "12 Hour Shift".'
I realized at that moment when he said that I was his hero that it was me he was talking about, not just the Duckmaster, but Duckmaster Kenon.
These connections I've made over the years have all let me here. Now I'm making Hollywood films that are big-scale productions. I was cast in a television pilot called "High Heel" that's being filmed in Memphis. I've got some upcoming roles in movies that I would have never dreamed of. I got flown out to be on a game show called "Tell the Truth" with David. I met Paul Reubens, who is famous for playing Pee-Wee Herman. So, I'm sitting outside eating at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel with Paul Reubens and David Arquette. I've never felt more out of place in my life.
And I got there with no agent, no manager and no publicist.
It just doesn't work that way. That doesn't happen in Hollywood, but it is for me. My entire life, my entire existence, is a testimony of what is possible through faith. But, again, I never mapped anything out or strategically planned for this to happen.
My entire life, my entire existence, is a testimony of what is possible through faith.
These folks that have come into my life have catapulted me to another level. But again, the only thing that got me here was just following my spirit and believing that I could versus believing that I couldn't.
And it all happened because I took the job as Duckmaster and the uniqueness the tradition carries.
For one faction of people, it's the tradition that brings them back to the ceremony. They might have grown up here and have fond memories of being at the Peabody. We have people who got married at the hotel sixty or seventy years ago and come back every year.
I think to the younger generations, it represents a slice of innocence. It's entertaining, but it's also very unusual, albeit charming. I've had CEOs here for conferences wearing very expensive suits– very corporate people. But, once they see the ceremony, you can see that breakdown. Typically at a hotel, people stay within their departments. Front desk attendants deal with front desk issues. Valet parks cars. Housekeepers clean the rooms. There really aren't a lot of genuine interactions that happen between guests and employees.
But, the advantage of being the Duckmaster is that if somebody's angry about a room or their car, that doesn't bleed into their interactions with me.
There is something so unique about the Duck March, something that strips people away from whatever they are staying there for, whether it's a conference, a funeral, a wedding, etc. For those moments during the March, I really believe it brings the child back out of you, regardless of who you are in the world. I think there's a lot of power in that. In that moment, it brings the child back out of you, no matter who you are. And I think there's a lot of power in that.
So if you're interested in coming to the Duck March I'd recommend arriving 30 minutes before to get the full effect of the presentation and performance.
Don't create bad karma for yourself. Recognize the obstacles. Turn the roadblocks into speed bumps, adjust your pace and keep moving forward.
My advice to people is to figure out what it is that makes you feel full and what is it that makes you feel alive. Treat people right along the way, but never let anyone tell you what you can't do. My philosophy in life is you have conditioning, and then you have karma. Karma is the consequences of negative choices you made, and now you have to do what you need to rectify those mistakes,
Conditioning, however, is different. There will always be obstacles in life that were already set for you. I believe they were pre-determined in a sense so that you can overcome those obstacles to become who you are meant to be. Don't create bad karma for yourself. Recognize the obstacles. Turn the roadblocks into speed bumps, adjust your pace and keep moving forward. But, don't ever, ever let anyone tell you what you can't do.