Mild-Mannered Memphis Seeing the sights: In little more than a day, a visitor can see much of the Mississippi River town that King Cotton -- and music -- built.


I told a friend I was going to Memphis.

"Memphis?" he said. "Isn't that where the ducks march?"

It certainly is. Twice a day, in fact. But there's more to Memphis than the Peabody ducks marching down a red carpet in the venerable hotel's lobby -- although that is a most charming feature of this Tennessee town.

Perched on a bluff with the Mississippi River as its front yard, this city of nearly 700,000 is a kick-back place where friendliness oozes out of its citizens like honey from a comb, and where you can spend several days discovering its curiosities.

This is, after all the town that King Cotton -- and music -- built. Steamboats once paraded up and down the river, hauling their cargo of "white gold." W. C. Handy honed the sound that would become known as the blues at PeeWee's Saloon on Beale Street. And at the tiny Sun Studio at the corner of Marshall and Union streets, rock and roll was born and the career of another king, Elvis Presley, was launched.

This is also where, on a tragic day in 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

And this is where I find myself on a warm summer day. Like most business travelers and many vacationers, I only have a little more than a day here. It's not enough time to do Memphis thoroughly, but you can at least get a sense of place -- and find out whether you want to come back.

Some Memphis possibilities:

* Gray Line Memphis Sightseeing Tour, (901) 948-8687; $18 adult, $17 seniors and $8 children ages 4-12. OK, so a bus tour is passive sightseeing. But it's also one of the quickest ways to get a little history and a comprehensive view of a city -- what's out there, the lay of the land, what might be worth further exploration.

With that in mind, I hopped aboard a tour bus that picked me up at my hotel. We took a spin by Elvis Presley's Graceland, then continued on to Central Gardens, a section of elegant homes built, our guide told us, between the 1850s and early 1900s. It's not Beverly Hills, but there are nevertheless some deluxe abodes on these tree-shaded boulevards.

On the way to our next stop, Sun Studio, where music legends such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley recorded, we got a little Elvis lore.

"They actually fired Elvis at the Loew's State [theater] here for giving away popcorn to his friends," our guide informed us.

The studio's little cafe has long been the meeting place for legends. It's stuck in the '60s in both menu (hamburgers and the like) and ambience. Massive photos of Elvis grace the wall (this was, after all, where the King recorded his first hit, "Don't Be Cruel"); one of the most famous photos, dubbed the "Million Dollar Quartet," features Elvis on the piano surrounded by Lewis, Perkins and Cash.

I paid the extra $2.50 to see the tiny museum upstairs. This is where rock and roll started. Instruments, old candid studio photographs, early newspaper and magazine articles and a variety of memorabilia track the evolution of rock and the Elvis explosion. Want a souvenir? You can buy a copy of Elvis' driver's license for a few bucks.

Houses and hospital

We rolled by Victorian Village on Adams Street, a few blocks of restored homes dating as far back as the 1840s. Many are open to the public (for a fee); we didn't stop.

We did get out and wander around the Danny Thomas ALSAC (American Lebanese Associated Charities) Pavilion at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, one of 12 hospitals in Memphis.

It struck us as odd to see a gold-domed mausoleum on the order of something from the Middle East in the middle of Memphis, but then, the city was named for the capital of the old kingdom of Egypt. And the structure was, in fact, modeled after the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It houses a multifaceted tribute to Thomas, from his early show-business days and his TV show, "Make Room for Daddy," to his honors for humanitarianism.

There is also an exhibit dedicated to the work of this hospital that offers medical care free of charge to children with catastrophic illnesses.

The tour also took us by the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on April 4, 1968. Now, it's the National Civil Rights Museum.

Then, we're on Beale Street, a jumble of nightclubs, restaurants, oddball shops and rundown buildings where the blues was nurtured. The music still, come nightfall, wails plaintively from clubs like B. B. King's.

There are some intriguing sites in this short seven or so blocks: the Center for Southern Folklore, with its videos on B. B. King and W. C. Handy, and its collection of folk art; the Old Negro League Shop, with its collection of memorabilia from the days of the Negro League baseball teams; Schwab's, the quintessential junk store (its motto is, "If we don't have it, you don't need it"); the Memphis Police Museum, a working substation that also houses a collection of police uniforms, weapons, confiscated items and, of course, a jail cell; and the home of W. C. Handy, the tiny, clapboard house now dwarfed by commercial buildings where he wrote "St. Louis Blues" and "Memphis Blues."

Hooray for ducks

By 5 p.m., we were waiting for the legendary duck march at the Peabody Hotel. Tourists by the hundreds hung over the balcony railing above the lobby and stood four deep on either side of a long, red carpet below.

Suddenly, to John Philip Sousa's rousing "King Cotton March," five mallard ducks -- a drake and four hens -- clambered down from the hotel fountain and waddled down the red carpet, oblivious to the clamor and the camera flashes. Into the elevator they marched, to be whisked away to their penthouse abode on the top of the Peabody, where they have one of the best views in the city.

It's a ritual that has been repeated twice a day -- at 11 a.m., when they come down for the day in the fountain, and 5 p.m., when they return to their "duck palace" -- since 1940. It's amazing how many people gather daily to see five ducks march 50 feet -- about 200, a hotel spokeswoman told me. Some days the crowd swells to 300 or 400. And no, she said, the Peabody does not include duck on any of its menus.

Unsettling experience

* National Civil Rights Museum, 450 Mulberry St.; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday (closed Tuesday); 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday; (901) 521-9699; $5 adults, $4 seniors and students, $3 children ages 6 to 12.

The Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, could have been just a shrine to King. Instead, it has been turned into an intensely moving record of the 300-year battle for civil rights for African-Americans.

An introductory film sets the stage -- and the tone -- for the exhibits. Through text, audiovisuals, hands-on exhibits and photos, I found myself an observer of such events as the unjust lynching of an African-American boy in Waco, Texas -- under the mayor's window; the trial of the Scottsboro Nine, nine African-American boys wrongly accused of raping two white women; the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ruled separate educational facilities based on race were inherently unequal; and the marches, bus boycotts and freedom rides that left so many dead, injured or imprisoned.

There's a burned bus from a freedom ride here, and a re-creation of the Nashville Greyhound Bus Station cafe where African-Americans staged a sit-in to claim their right to service. And you can sit at the front of a bus as Rosa Parks did in 1955 and feel the tension as a voice commands you to move to the rear, a voice that gets louder and louder.

It is an unsettling, emotional and, at times, enraging experience. It is also an important one.

* Mud Island, 125 N. Front St.; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily in summer, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April through May and September through November (closed Mondays); (901) 576-7241; grounds and monorail only, $2 adults, $1 children under 12 and seniors; all attractions, $6 adults, $4 children under 12 and seniors.

A 52-acre park filled with restaurants, shops and museums set in the middle of the Mississippi, this is where Tom Cruise led villains on a merry chase -- via monorail, the most popular way to and from the island -- in "The Firm."

Walk to the gulf

It's also where you can walk 900 miles of the Mississippi in minutes. Yes, Old Man River has been captured in concrete in the River Walk, which winds a half-mile to the Gulf of Mexico (in reality, a huge public swimming pool). Like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, the concrete structure re-creates all the bends, bridges and levees of the Mississippi from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico at a scale of one footstep to the mile.

When I got tired of traversing the Mississippi, I took in the Mississippi River Museum. It's a fun place to roam, a receptacle of American Indian, pioneer and Civil War artifacts, as well as absorbing exhibits on music and the boats of the Mississippi. There's even a reconstruction of a packet boat, the Belle of the Bluffs; I wandered through its grand salon, pilot house and stateroom and was transported back to the days when steamboats and other vessels were the link between river cities.

Another hallmark of Mud Island is the Memphis Belle. The legendary World War II B-17 bomber, which completed 25 combat missions without a single crew loss, sits in a white pavilion; information panels tell its story and there are free, guided exterior tours daily.

If you go . . .

Memphis Visitors Information Center: 340 Beale St., Memphis, Tenn. 38103; (901) 543-5333

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