Surfing and Gidget go together like peanut butter and radish sandwiches. Easy Peasy.
Surfing was nothing new, but prior to the splash that Gidget made, the lingo and the sport was confined to a handful of aficionados. Surfing movies were documentaries and home movies.
When “the ultimate” surf frolic was released on the big screen it started a swell that propelled the lingo and romance of the sport of surfing directly onto the shores of a generation of teens from all over.
Gidget first appeared on the horizon in print. The novel, “Gidget, the Little Girl With Big Idea” published in 1956 by Fred Kohner. The book was fairly successful and quickly became popular. Kohner went on to write a total of 7 Gidget novels. Drawn with love, our heroine Gidget was likable, and well rounded a wholesome role model for the “Young Adult” audience that bought the book.
In the books, just like in the movies, she was plucky and smart, wholesome but still a bit naughty and ever daring. Not afraid to take chances on the waves or on the beach. She pushed the guys buttons, but never followed through. She was also very much a Daddy’s girl. A trait that was likely was because she’s based on the author’s daughter.
Kathy Kohner was a 15 year old, straight “A” student, when she was first bit by the surfing bug. She was not the first girl to surf Malibu, but thanks to Gidget, the best remembered. She became a surfer when surfing was for boys and tanning on the beach was for the girls.
At first, the surfers gave her a hard time when she showed up on Malibu. They were always teasing her, telling her she was going to wipe out. Played practical jokes on her.
Surfer Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy coined the famous nickname “Gidget” for the teen because of her height (5’none).
But she came back. Over and over again. She brought homemade peanut butter sandwiches to with trade Tubesteak for one of his rental boards. Kathy soon learned to surf, bought her own board. She became one of them.
At home, Kathy started talking (and cussing) like a surfer. She started smoking. She told her dad stories about the gnarly people, the bitchen’ waves. She wrote more of the stories about her experiences in her diary every night. A diary that her dad reportedly found and read.
Those stories are now very familiar to us. Its sometimes hard to figure out where Kathy ends and the fictional Gidget begins. The Gidget character comes across as so authentic that it is clear she is written through the filter of her father’s loving eyes.
But while Gidget stays an iconic and innocent carefree teenage surfer, Kathy, of course, grew up. In 1960 she went off to college, became a teacher. Got married, had kids. Though she still surfed, surfing took a backseat to life.
The surfers mostly cringed.
In 1959, Gidget launched her kooky self off the page to ride the party wave onto the big screen. Over the next decade the movie spawned two big screen sequels, and of course the television series. Throughout the 70’s, through the 80’s there were Gidget TV movies and reunions. Surf movies like Beach Blanket Bingo became instant box office hits.
We loved her. We really, really loved her. Couldn’t get enough of her. Guys wanted to date her. Girls wanted to be her. Everyone wanted to be her friend. To be a surfer just like her. She really was the one for us. Perhaps accidentaly, along the way we also fell in love with surfing.
As a result of the popularity of the movie, people headed to the beach in droves. Landlocked teens started talking about the thrill of dudes (and Gidgets) shooting the curl in the hallways. Cheesey surfing flicks were box office gold. Careers were made.
The surfers, even Kathy, mostly hated it. For many the fame took all of what made surfing sacred, and made it into a pop culture joke. Goofy footed kooks, who didn’t understand the etiquette or the waves crowded their beaches, their sport, their lives.
Of course real, authentic surfers still rode the waves and shaped the sport. They just had to get to the beach earlier than they used to.
Still Riding the Curl
60 years after the movie debut we still talk about her impact on our lives, our culture. We also still love surfing, and thanks to “Gidget” girls are now a regular part of the surfing scene.
Now in her 70’s, Kathy Kohner can still be found in Malibu at Duke’s where she works as a hostess and surfing ambassador. In 2011 she was inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach, and is #7 on Surfer Magazine’s “25 Most Influential People in Surfing.” She still surfs at least once a year for a cancer charity.
In interviews she is humble. Still very much Daddy’s girl, giving him total credit for the Gidget phenom. Yet we can still see, hear the authentic Gidget in her voice. In the stories she tells still about surfing. And darned if we aren’t in love with Gidget all over again.
You know, it’s overwhelming, and I’m really touched. All I did was surf a little and tell my story – Kathy Kohner Zuckerman
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