The mountain air smelled pure and clean, and we could hear the humming of the windmill blades as we drove across the desert through the San Gorgonio Pass toward Palm Springs, Calif.
The town, about two hours east of Los Angeles, is nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains — known for a sumptuous pink glow at sunset, and for hot springs offering medicinal cures. In 1950, Palm Springs became a popular playground for Hollywood actors to escape the paparazzi. Today it has undergone a revival of its 'Rat Pack past' and has become a destination to experience all aspects of the 1950s, 60s and 70s — the music, architecture, and star-studded cast of characters of those three decades.
The Orbit In hotel can be found, we were told, "about a block and a half from the 26-foot high Forever Marilyn sculpture" currently situated in the middle of town. The statue depicts Marilyn's famous pose from the film the Seven-Year Itch (she stands over a street grate, white dress swirling), and is an iconic landmark not to mention a fabulous photo opportunity. Marilyn Monroe came here as a young starlet in 1947, and stayed at the Racquet Club of Palm Springs, a hotel known at the time for its Hollywood elite.
Jade Nelson, the manager, showed us our room. Nostalgia oozed from the 1960s décor: a kidney-shaped glass coffee table, a vinyl of Dean Martin on the bedside table and an alarm clock which waked us playing "Unforgettable" — Nat King Cole's hit record from 1956. That evening we were served "orbitinis" by the pool — an homage to the "cocktail culture of the past" where cigarettes and martinis were the order of the day. It has been said that at Frank Sinatra's house, "every day at 5 o'clock, Frank hoisted his flag to let Carey Grant and Jack Benny know it was time for a drink."
The Palm Springs Follies has everything to offer for those who reminisce about the past or for those interested in discovering it. Retired performers from Broadway and Vegas shows — mostly older than 60; one gentleman is 82 — make up the cast. An irreverent emcee named Riff keeps things moving with jokes and charmingly manages to offend everyone with his impromptu repartee. Turning to the crowd, he quipped, "Why at this age do we keep on singing and dancing?" As he stared into the audience, he replied, "Because if we didn't we would look like you!"
The finale, called "Stars & Stripes" with a red, white and blue motif, was a sing-a-long guided by Riff to the song "America the Beautiful." Throughout the entire song, the military active duty members and veterans in the audience stood at attention and saluted — a moving tribute toward keeping the spirit of patriotism alive in Palm Springs. Closing the show this way is a Follies tradition — one the emcee said they would always keep.
The most glittering gem of the desert, however, is "Sunnylands," the winter home of Walter and Lenore Annenberg, who built a 200-acre estate in 1965 at the corner of Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra Drive. Nelson recalled, "I was about ten years old when they came to the desert — there was nothing there." Today, Sunnylands contains a nine-hole golf course watered by geothermal wells, gardens massed by 50 species of cactus, 11 manmade lakes, groves of olive trees, and a dazzling new Visitor's Center.
The Annenbergs were a wealthy couple whose fortune came from the newspaper business (e.g., Seventeen Magazine, TV Guide) and Lenore Annenberg had strong connections to Hollywood. In 1969, Walter Annenberg served as ambassador to the United Kingdom. The couple were dedicated philanthropists and avid art collectors who amassed a large collection of Impressionist works.
Upon arriving, we were bustled into a golf cart by Mary, our friendly and informative guide, who quickly drove us to the main house. As we zipped along, she remarked how the property was in a bird "fly-zone" and "as many as 25 species of birds could be seen in one day." Also, she said that Mr. Annenberg loved to hear the "chirping of birds, so microphones were installed on the bird feeders and he could hear their birdsong while showering."
Sunnyland's architect, A. Quincy Jones, was a specialist in the style which came to be known as "mid-century modern" architecture. The style incorporates glass walls to "integrate indoor and outdoor spaces" but also roof design that shades the interior rooms from the desert sun.
As we entered the front hall, I gasped at the mirage-like view in front of me — the mountains in the distance had become part of the living room. The glass walls became portals bringing the outside in, merging the Monets and Renoirs with the distant mountains. These paintings, full of air and light, resonated with the nature that had entered the house.
Mrs. Annenberg, inspired by the Impressionists' palette, painted the roof pink to match the mountain sunsets she witnessed, and used the same hues for her gardens and furnishings. A consummate hostess, her guest list included presidents, diplomats, businessmen, British Royalty and of course celebrities — Frank Sinatra was married to Barbara Marx in front of the fireplace, which, our guide informed us, "was never used because of the Monet above it."
Landscape architect James Burnett says on the Sunnylands website, "The experience should transport you from the everyday world. We want people to come away with a "wow."
Having experienced the Annenbergs' commitment to excellence, and their generous philanthropic contributions — I walked away feeling a huge "wow." Their legacy however, not only embraces the past but has an eye to the future. On a yearly basis, governmental retreats are held at Sunnylands and there is one very special bedroom available, — only for the President.
37977 Bob Hope Drive
Rancho Mirage, CA 92270
The Palm Spring Follies
The Orbit In
562 W. Arenas Road
Palm Springs, California 92262
Palm Springs California
Bureau of Tourism
Palm Springs Visitors Center
2901 North Palm Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, Calif., 92262