A 2000 story for my “Sidecar” column for New Times LA, an alternative weekly published from 1996 to 2002.
The Cake Lady: Beneath the Icing
Her faith in God strengthened her, and the Mini-Cake Museum became a sort of sanctuary. There amid the cakes and sugarcraft curios, she’d hide herself away. “Sometimes I’d go there and cry, or I’d just scream out loud to release all that tension.
BY AL RIDENOUR
Buttercreme bends to her will. Fondant is her slave, and even royal icing obeys her every command. She can tube-ice 250 cakes in less than an hour. She can fold parchment into pastry bags faster than you blink. Her super powers allow her to craft portrait cakes real enough to talk. Her secret weapons include the Kopykake machine and chroma-jet airbrush. Her uniform is a flouncy baker’s hat, Betty Crocker pearls, and apron. Born during the administration of Woodrow Wilson, her birth certificate calls her Frances Kuyper, but the rest of the world calls her “The Cake Lady”.
For several decades, she’s flown around the globe making personal and televised appearances, initiating others into the mysteries of cake-crafting, and at 82, she’s doing it again today. A video camera trained on the demonstration table simulcasts a bigscreen version of the action: hands flying and dabs of icing whirling into flowers and animals. Kuyper bounces along with lively patter about the time her partner got drunk and left her with 100 cakes to decorate in twelve hours.
“I pulled it off,” she says. “But then again, I always had a reputation for being fast,” she deadpans. The audience laughs, and the grandmotherly Kuyper pulls a droll look of surprise augmented by thick glasses. “A fast cake decorator, I mean.” It’s pure showbiz, and the Cake Lady’s been honing those chops for more than half a century.
Upstairs from the lecture hall, bingo is played, arteries harden, and women dye their hair colorful interpretations of gray. The Cake Lady’s secret hideout is currently the 110-year old Hollenbeck Home in Boyle Heights. It’s a high-security compound just over the 4th Street bridge from downtown’s industrial wasteland and cardboard wino villages.
Kuyper moved here from a quaint home in Pasadena a little over a year ago after her husband died. In her old digs, she’d collected cakes — petrified icing ornaments that once adorned edible cakes as well as plaster and Styrofoam models and others for trade shows competitions. The day she came here, a mover’s nightmare of 150 painstakingly padded cakes and dainties tagged along. Previously exhibited in Pasadena’s Mini-Cake Museum, opened by Kuyper in 1994, they are now re-assembled in Hollenbeck for viewing by appointment. During a break from her lecture, Kuyper arranges for the instructor leading the field trip to the senior center to escort students to the Cake Room, and agrees to an interview, saying she’ll get out some albums from her 50-year career in high-profile baking.
The Cake Lady’s quarters are a homey clutter of family photos, books, and craft supplies. A picture of Jesus hangs over a set of two perfectly made single beds. “That was my first airbrush on canvas,” she says. “Now, I’ve got the airbrush down and it’s this thing I’m trying to learn,” she says pointing to a desktop computer. Over her initial fear, she says she’s enjoying sharing the secrets of cake-crafting online and talking to colleagues in Australia.
“I’ve got to keep up; there’s always something new,” she says, pulling out a blank sheet of paper in a clear plastic sheath and handing it over for inspection. “Like this. It’s edible — made of starch. You scan your picture and print it out. Put that on a freshly iced buttercreme, and it just melts right on. That’s how they do it nowadays.”
Rummaging for a moment, she retrieves that photo album she’s eager to show. But it’s not grandma’s usual snapshots of sticky babies, cats, and birthdays. Instead there are pictures of Kuyper with Steve Allen in a funky ’60s soundstage, Kuyper icing a cake with Florence Henderson in an earth-tone TV-land, shots with Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin, Soupy Sales, Bozo, and countless others. And for each of these personalities, there’s a cake bearing that celebrity mug rendered on icing by the Cake Lady’s well-trained airbrush.
Kuyper was an entertainer long before TV existed. During the depression, the family supplemented their income by turning their home into a dance school. Kuyper provided piano for the rehearsals, eventually becoming a talented dancer herself. At the age of 16, she took to the road with her older sister Charlotte as part of a musical-comedy act touring what was left of the vaudeville circuit. From 1935 to 1947, they performed gay ’90s ballads, black-face minstrel numbers, and a Dutch tap-dance routine involving wooden shoes and costumes. The sisters sent part of their earnings home, and Kuyper took up sketching on the envelopes. “Whatever I saw out the window — that’s what I drew.” She also occasionally outlined patterns for her oldest sister to use in her Cincinnati bakery as icing templates. “She wanted me to be her decorator,” Kupyer recalls, “I didn’t want to get into all that messy stuff. I wanted to be a commercial artist or teacher.”
Eventually her older sister tired of the road and married. Kuyper followed suite, and happily accompanied her husband when he was transferred to Los Angeles in 1948. After years on the road, she finally learned to keep house, cook, and bake. Whipping up an ornately decorated cake for a church potluck one day, she found herself suddenly swamped with orders for duplicates. Short on cash, Kuyper mowed lawns to obtain baking supplies for fancier cakes. Instruction was harder to come by. “I’d stand in front of the pastry window at the Farmers Market for five hours at a time because the Trade Tech school wouldn’t let me into the class since I only had an 8th grade education. It was two hours and three bus changes to get there from Compton, but I could learn a lot by watching. Afterwards, I’d go home and practice using Crisco for icing.”
As television evolved in the 1950s, broadcasters eager to provide daytime programming for homemakers found a godsend in Kuyper’s combination of culinary ingenuity and theatricality. Television helped transform Kuyper into a larger-than-life Cake Lady, but ultimately it was God, Kuyper says, who prepared her way to Cake Ladyhood.
“For a long time I thought anybody could do it,” she says. “But I’ve had so many visions, so many ideas. I feel like the Holy Spirit is working through me because everybody isn’t gifted that way.” Throughout her career, Kuyper finds evidence of divine guidance — from little things like a newly invented stencil cutter appearing to her in a dream three nights before it hit the shelves, to grander manifestations like the conception of the Mini-Cake Museum that would fill the house vacated by her daughter.
“I was praying for her my daughter’s happiness, and that’s when I saw it,” Kuyper says. “It so clear — every detail, down to the drapes and venetian blinds, and the gray walls; the walls had to be gray.” Before Kuyper could start repainting the next-door family property, however, she had to tell her husband. “I was afraid to tell him because I thought I was going nuts with it all coming to me so clear like that. We could’ve gotten $1000 a month for that place, but I finally told him over dinner one night, and he actually agreed.”
One year of work and $40,000 later, the museum was opened. Visitors trickled in, eventually arriving in a steady stream from countries all around the world. An article about the Mini-Cake Museum, caught the attention of producers of Howie Mandel’s short-lived syndicated talk show in 1999, and Kuyper was invited on to create a portrait cake of the host. Her little-old-lady-from-Pasadena charm won out, and she soon had a regular gig on the show as special correspondent interviewing celebs, belly dancing in Vegas, and serenading residents of a nudist camp.
“They asked me if I’d mind going there,” Kuyper recalls. “And I said ‘Why would I? There were seven strippers in the show my sister and I were with — so what’s the difference?'” Decades before, Kupyer had already incorporated a mock apron striptease into a performance and had created erotic cakes for a customer who brought in a peep-show slide-viewer featuring the image to be duplicated. (“We had to do it,” she says, “The sign outside said, ‘Bring Any Idea and our Decorator Will Reproduce It’.)
But even as Kuyper was clowning around for Mandel’s crew, she was struggling with grim realities in her life at home. Her husband, suffering for years from Alzheimer’s, was moving into the advanced stages of dementia. “In his mind he’d gone back to the ’40s,” she says. “He kept courting me, begging me to marry him. That’s why I decided on our 50th anniversary to renew our vows,” she says pointing to the wedding photos on the wall behind her. “Two years ago, we had a ceremony in the church. I thought, maybe he’d remember if he walked through the service, but the next day he was right back to it, asking me to marry him. When you watch somebody deteriorate day by day, it’s heart sickening.”
Her faith in God strengthened her, and the Mini-Cake Museum became a sort of sanctuary. There amid the cakes and sugarcraft curios, she’d hide herself away. “Sometimes I’d go there and cry, or I’d just scream out loud to release all that tension. And I’d pray. Ten minutes later, I’d be okay to go on.”
“I was ready for a nervous breakdown when I came here. I was so busy taking care of my husband; I was giving tours; I was doing commercials; I was on Howie; I was running around the clock. Now I’ve got it better than I did in Pasadena. This place is wonderful.”
Kuyper leads the way to the new Cake Room. Down a hospital-green hallway, past a resident in a wheelchair and electric pink sundress, she enters an elevator and presses the basement button. Two right turns, and you’re there. Looks like a door to a laundry room, but push it open and you’ll find 150 birthdays, bar mitzvahs, Christmases, Easters — every holiday imaginable done up in fossilized icing. Cinderella, Elvis, and Oprah made of fondant and food color. Marzipan trolls and roses like porcelain. A two-foot tall Eiffel tower spun out of lacy sugar. Baroque pineapples set amidst dripping ornament and tracery. 150 retired cakes and dainties, gathered from seven countries, perpetually celebrating Easter of 1930 or marriages long since annulled.
“I was ready to demolish it all,” says the Cake Lady. “But they gave me space and helped me move it. I was getting sentimental — how could I pick favorites to save?” She looks from one cake as if still deciding between a silvery cake with green gumpaste dragonfly and a palace with gold foil spires.
“It was such a relief! I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.” She flashes that beatific Cake Lady smile, and it does seem like heaven, or at least the sweetest spot in Boyle Heights.