Sunnylands: Where Movie Stars And Presidents Play (And Work) President Obama heads to the 200-acre California estate on Friday for a meeting with the Chinese president. He'll be the eighth president to visit the former winter home of Walter and Leonore Annenberg. It has also entertained the likes of Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart and Frank Sinatra.
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Sunnylands: Where Movie Stars And Presidents Play (And Work)

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Sunnylands: Where Movie Stars And Presidents Play (And Work)

Sunnylands: Where Movie Stars And Presidents Play (And Work)

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Sunnylands, the estate where President Obama and China's new president will meet, covers about 200 acres near Palm Springs. The house there is made of lava stone. The private golf course includes a pink pagoda. And if the presidents feel like fishing in one of the property's 11 lakes, they will hardly be the first world leaders to dip a line in the water. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the historic place behind this historic meeting.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Barack Obama is the eighth president to visit Sunnylands. The first was Dwight Eisenhower in 1966. He went to see his friends Walter and Leonore Annenberg, wealthy publishers and philanthropists who had built the estate as their winter home.

The center's current director, Janice Lyle, says President Eisenhower looked quizzically at his friend. You're right by Palm Springs, Eisenhower said, but you don't have any palm trees.

DR. JANICE LYLE: And so the next week, Walter Annenberg made certain that two palm trees were planted on the property. They're currently called the Eisenhower Palms. They're almost 50 years old, and they tower over everything else here.

SHAPIRO: President Obama will see those palm trees when he arrives tomorrow. He may also see an inscription in the guestbook from Richard Nixon. Shortly after the president resigned in disgrace, Nixon visited Sunnylands and wrote: When you're down, you find out who your real friends are.

The most frequent presidential visitor by far was Ronald Reagan. He was friends with the Annenbergs way back when he was an actor in Hollywood. Reagan attended New Year's Eve at Sunnylands 18 times, many with Secretary of State George Shultz.

GEORGE SHULTZ: I often sat beside Dolores Hope, and she was just great.

SHAPIRO: As in wife of the legendary performer Bob Hope.

SHULTZ: I asked my wife what Bob Hope talked about, she said, he just told jokes. He was so funny. He had her in stitches all the time.

SHAPIRO: That's one thing that made Sunnylands unique: Titans of politics mingled with titans of entertainment. Dinah Shore and Jimmy Stewart hung out there. In 1976, Frank Sinatra married his fourth wife there. The Annenbergs went out of their way to make that event work, says frequent guest Carol Price.

CAROL PRICE: They opened up the house in the middle of the summer, something that they'd never done for anybody else.

SHAPIRO: She says Leonore Annenberg was a renowned hostess. She'd provide magazines tailored to her guests' interests. If you were sleeping in the yellow room, there would be a bowl of yellow jellybeans, pink ones in the pink room. And Mrs. Annenberg gave everyone biographical sketches of the other guests in advance, says Carol Price.

PRICE: And they were always very flattering, but they were interesting, and it helped the other guests. For instance, she even did that for when a number of years the chief justice would come.

SHAPIRO: The Annenbergs were lifelong Republicans, but they were proud to host notables of both parties. Sunnylands Director Janice Lyle.

LYLE: We have a wonderful photograph of Bill Clinton on Valentine's Day, and the Annenbergs are both wearing red. Walter Annenberg has a red jacket, and Mrs. Annenberg has a red dress on in that photo.

SHAPIRO: The privacy of the estate makes it a great place for this presidential retreat between the U.S. and China, says Doug Paal. He's a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and he worked for George H. W. Bush, who liked to catch bass in the lakes at Sunnylands.

DR. DOUGLAS PAAL: Without having the trapping of the White House and all the bells and whistles that Chinese normally seek, this gives a lot of face. It gives a lot of respect. It shows high-level treatment. But you don't have that structured, you must do this first. Stand on the red line. Wait for the cameras. Wait for the music to stop.

SHAPIRO: Walter and Leonore Annenberg dreamed that Sunnylands would continue on after their death as a sort of Western Camp David. This weekend is the first time the estate has hosted a president since the Annenbergs died.

The staff is trying to provide the same kind of hospitality that Mrs. Annenberg would have, down to the yellow jellybeans in the yellow room and the pink ones in the pink room. Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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