March 04, 2002 12:00 PM

Sixteen Candles launched the careers of several Brat Packers, but for Blanche Baker the seminal teen film served more as a grand finale. Playing Molly Ringwald’s self-absorbed sister Ginny in the 1984 comedy “was sort of the last hurrah,” says Baker. “By the time it came out, I was married and pregnant. I don’t think my agent thought that was a particularly good career move.”

That may have been true at the time, but her decision ultimately led her to reclaim her passion for a different art form: sculpting. Today Baker’s bronze figures have been showcased in museums around the U.S. “I’ve seen her create sheer magic out of nothing,” says Val J. Halamandaris, executive director of the Caring Institute in Washington, D.C., who commissioned Baker, 45, to create a 7-ft. statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass last fall. “The test of good art is, Do hairs stand up on the back of your arm? Her work invokes that response instantly.”

Baker’s turn in Sixteen Candles also elicited spirited reactions, especially during her scenes as a drug-addled bride pratfalling her way down the aisle. But the film’s zaniest antics occurred off-camera with a cast of then-unknowns including Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall and siblings John and Joan Cusack. At 26, “I was one of the oldest there, so they used to play tricks on me,” says Baker, recalling days when Hall would short-sheet her bed or make her shriek by hanging from his shirt on the coat hook in her hotel room. “It was just like being at camp.” Adds Hall: “She didn’t make me feel intimidated at all. She was very kind, and we just had so much fun.”

Despite the hilarity, Baker had always been wary of show business. The child of Baby Doll and Giant actress Carroll Baker, now 70, and Czechoslovakian director Jack Garfein, 71, Blanche had grown up first in New York City and then L.A. “I took great pains to keep the kids out of the limelight. They were only very rarely photographed,” says Carroll. But her daughter watched her struggle with fame. “It’s a difficult business to stay sane in,” says Baker. “My mother was quite unhappy at the height of her career.”

Still, Baker couldn’t keep herself from dabbling in the arts as well. After her parents split in 1964, Baker moved to Italy for a fresh start with Carroll and her brother Herschel (now 44 and a classical-music composer). Surrounded by beautiful art, she discovered a knack for sculpture. Baker returned to the U.S. and enrolled at Wellesley College in 1974 but got the acting bug and dropped out two years later to study both art and acting in New York City.

While visiting Herschel at Yale University in 1978, Baker attended an open audition and landed onstage as a young girl coming of age in the drama White Marriage. The job led to her Emmy-winning role as a young Jew in the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust opposite another young actress—Meryl Streep. “I was spoiled for life,” says Baker. “I thought that all acting projects were like this.”

They weren’t, of course, and Baker worked steadily but quietly onstage and in film, until she landed Sixteen Candles in 1983. Immediately after filming wrapped, Baker married Bruce Van Dusen, now 48, who had directed her that year in the independent comedy Cold Feet.

As Candles opened, the couple settled in a five-bedroom colonial home in “Westchester County, N.Y. Baker continued to work sporadically but by 1990 had become a full-time parent to Zane, 17, Dara, 15, and now Wynnie, 8.”Casting agents used to try to go through me to get to her,” says brother Herschel. “But Blanche wouldn’t entertain the offers.”

Instead Baker resumed sculpting. She took classes in 1992 and started exhibiting four years later, using her married name, Blanche Van Dusen. Her pieces began winning accolades from national arts groups, and Baker soon landed plum commissions, such as a bust of the Dalai Lama that sits in Manhattan’s Tibet House.

Now with her career more firmly established, Baker, who is in the process of getting divorced from Van Dusen, doesn’t regret turning her back on Hollywood. But she admits that having Sixteen Candles on her résumé continues to pay dividends, thanks to the film’s diehard fans. When she needs a babysitter, says Baker, “I can call up any 16-year-old still, and they’ll cancel everything to be here!”

Jason Lynch

Olivia Abel in Westchester County

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