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He went from Broadway to baking, but Arnold Wilkerson never lost that sense of performance.
My West Side Story – via London and Europe
After I finished high school, I thought I should see the world. So I studied in London. I’ve always admired eccentric people, and the English give you eccentricity like nobody else (they also tend to want to give it you with a lot of drinking!). I lived there for five or six years. And when I traveled in Europe – the way food tasted! Steak au poivre! Cheateaubriand! And the presentation! That was a new experience.
My first play in New York …
It turned out to be a really big hit – it was Hair. And when you’re in a hit play, you have your foot in the door. But you can have your foot in the door of something and not really have your heart in it.
I decided that, one day, I would just give all of it up
… and focus on what I really wanted to do, which was bake. I had $250 in my pocket. I quit my job. It was Independence Day. I went up to my apartment and started peeling apples.
I grew up in California, on a farm in the St Joaquin Valley. I remember going out and picking berries with my grandmother, and coming home and canning them that same day. We’d go out into the orchard and get peaches and plums and pears or whatever fruit was available, and then mother would make pies over the weekend. It was just natural. Also, living in a city that called itself the Big Apple, it made sense that, if I wanted to do something, I should start with apple pie.
My first customer
It was at Curtain Up!, the restaurant that is now Esca, on W43rd St – 9th Ave. I took my pie there and said: “If you like this pie, just call me back – the next one you have to buy.” That night Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, and Bobby Short were all there having pie. Of course, they called back the next day.
Buy, buy this pie!
I was working at a restaurant at the same time to support myself, and at night, if I had favorite customers, I’d wait at the door and give them a pie to take home. One of these ladies happened to be a friend of a writer from New York magazine. That writer wrote: “Buy, buy this American Pie” and put my phone number up there. The next thing I knew, the phone was ringing off the hook, and I had to quit my job.
It was around Thanksgiving, and I’d bought a bunch of timers, and asked the people on my floor of my apartment building if I could use their kitchens. I was able to time going from apartment to apartment, and bring out the pies. And the kids – they would be the delivery people, taking these pies around to different parts of the city. I turned the 43rd floor of Manhattan Plaza into a bakery. I ran through about four or five ovens – the building couldn’t understand why we were going through an oven every year.
My life as a B movie
I was working 18 or 20 hours a day. When I wasn’t delivering, I was baking. When I wasn’t baking, I’d sit there and cut apples. And then, right out of a B movie, a banker was in the restaurant having my pie, and she said: “I want to meet this Arnold.” She made it possible for me to get my first loan to start my business. And, you know what? Within a year, I paid that loan back.
What I learned in school …
I learned that no one is a star. It’s an ensemble. When we started in ‘85, my bakers were all dishwashers. I’ve seen them send their kids through college, through university, to have children, to buy homes.
I also learned about theater in the round – it’s about giving the audience more. This is a company with all these people performing. There are no walls. We have five windows, and people stand and watch – it’s like an education in some ways. And I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of theater, where you are not just performing, but you are educating at the same time.
When I’m not making pies …
I’m still a meat and potatoes guy. I don’t go out that much, but I had one of those rare opportunities to see Porgy and Bess at the Met. I saw the first production by Texas Opera Company – it was unforgettable.
Arnold Wilkerson studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He made his Off-Broadway debut in the original production of Hair, and starred alongside Dustin Hoffman and Rue McClanahan in Jimmy Shine on Broadway. After working as a waiter in five-star restaurants in the city, he opened the Little Pie Company on W43rd St – 9th/10th Ave in 1985, and now counts Sarah Jessica Parker and Whoopi Goldberg among his loyal clients.
This interview originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of W42ST magazine. Stay in touch with W42ST and be first to read stories like this when you receive our daily newsletter. Join the conversation at w42st.com.