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The Peabody Hotel, Bought at Auction 25 Years Ago for $400,000
 by Belz Enterprises, Now a Memphis Treasure

By Amos Maki, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Sep. 1, 2006 - On Aug. 1, 1975, the fate of The Peabody -- and much of Downtown -- hung in the balance.

But at the Shelby County Courthouse that day the Belz family was able to outbid Robert 'Prince Mongo' Hodges -- newly arrived from the Planet Zambodia and decked out in a loincloth, shark- tooth necklace and sandals -- for ownership of The Peabody.

"That is how we happened to acquire the property that day, and it was very fortunate not only for us but for the community," said Jack Belz, chairman and CEO of Belz Enterprises. "It was like finding a diamond in a great amount of rough."

Belz, having paid $400,000, spent the next six years and $25 million -- nearly five times as much as it cost to build the hotel originally -- polishing that diamond in the rough.

Last night, the city celebrated the 25th anniversary of the grand reopening of The Peabody.

The Jim Johnson Orchestra, which performed at the reopening in 1981, played John Philip Sousa's "King Cotton March," and AutoZone founder J.R. 'Pitt' Hyde III was inducted into the Duck Walk Hall of Fame.

The reopening of The Peabody sparked the renewed interest in Downtown that is still burning today, said Henry Turley, principal of Henry Turley Co. and a close friend of Belz.

"I would say that was the most significant single event in our rebuilding of Downtown," said Turley, whose Shrine Building opened the same month as The Peabody. "I think that was true because so many people could participate. You could have a party there, spend time there, have a drink or dinner there. And when you got there, you realized you were already invested in it, most likely through memories."

Even more important, Turley said, the reopening of The Peabody gave a psychological boost to the city -- whose image had suffered in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent urban decline of the '70s -- and connected it to its past.

"I think, in almost a subconscious way, people realized that this was important," Turley said. "People said our heritage is important, and from there people said we can't neglect this part of our lives, our city and our history."

But the reopening of The Peabody was no sure thing. There were whispers that it couldn't be done, and that the project would sink Belz.

"We had all sorts of people in the community say we were going to get into real trouble and we should go ahead and demolish it and use it for parking for the Greyhound (terminal)," said Belz, who had his wedding reception at the hotel in 1948. "It was too magnificent to be disgraced by being torn down, and I felt we would never have a chance in Downtown Memphis if that place didn't live again."

And live it has.

The Peabody -- once described by author and historian David Cohn as the "Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepherd's, the London Savoy" of the Delta -- has played host to all manner of guests, from presidents to prime ministers to pop stars.

Just a few years ago, former President Jimmy Carter, basketball great Michael Jordan, actor Nicolas Cage and Lisa Marie Presley were all at the hotel at the same time and watched the famous Duck Walk.

"I don't think we're star-struck, but it's always exciting because they bring their own element of intrigue," said general manager Douglas V. Browne.

The restoration and reopening of The Peabody paved the way for the creation of Peabody Place Entertainment and Retail Center, which opened to much fanfare in 2001.

In an effort to ensure The Peabody maintains its special place in the hearts and minds of Mid-Southerners, Belz instituted a multimillion-dollar makeover of the 464-room hotel that was completed in December.

And a coffee table book called "The Peabody: The History of the South's Grand Hotel," highlighting the hotel's history that began with the opening of the original Peabody at Main and Monroe in 1869, will be out early next year.

"The Peabody hotel will continue to be the grand hotel of this region," Belz said.

"The Peabody is a place where you relive old memories and make new ones, and I hope there will be Memphians who will continue to make new memories in the future.

"That would bring us the satisfaction of knowing that something we worked very hard on is treasured by the community."

THE PEABODY: Belz Enterprises celebrated the 25th anniversary of the grand reopening of The Peabody last night. The Peabody has a long and storied history in Memphis.

--1869: The original Peabody hotel opens at Main and Monroe. It closes in 1923.

--Sept. 1, 1925: A new Peabody hotel opens at its current location.

--1940: Edward Pembroke, originally hired as a bellman at the hotel, volunteers to care for the hotel's ducks and is appointed duckmaster. Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, teaches the ducks the famous Peabody march.

--Early 1970s: The Peabody closes.

--Aug. 1, 1975: The Peabody is bought by Belz Enterprises.

--Sept. 1, 1981: The Peabody reopens.


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Copyright (c) 2006, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.

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