Gidget, the woman behind the wave, surfs again

Inspiration: Kathy Kohner Zuckerman's Malibu diary led to movies, a TV series and a cultural shift.

October 28, 2001|By Beverly Beyette | Beverly Beyette,Special to the Sun

They called her Gidget -- as in girl midget. Like Barbie, the name found its way into our vocabulary. And, in 1959, "Gidget" the movie set off a tsunami of surf-themed films with wide beaches and thin plots.

Well, she's back. Berkley Books has reissued "Gidget" the novel, 44 years after it first inspired the movie. And, if you happened to have hit the beach at Malibu on a Monday, you might have run into Gidget herself sizing up the surf.

"For a long time I retreated and didn't talk about this," says the real Gidget, Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, an animated 60-year-old part-time restaurant hostess who grew up in Brentwood and now lives in Pacific Palisades, a beach community on the west side of Los Angeles with her husband of 36 years.

Maybe it had something to do with age. "At 60, I have a sense of nostalgia," she says. "I want to put my arms around everybody and say, 'From now on in, we have a lot less of our future and more of our past.' "

Although some purists feel that Gidgetmania was an unfortunate, and exploitative, episode in the history of surfing -- and one with continuing fallout -- most praise Gidget for her part in popularizing a cult sport and as a role model for women.

Zuckerman began thinking about a reissue of the book in 1999 whenWahine, a women's surfing magazine, did a cover story on her for the 40th anniversary of the release of the first film, which starred Sandra Dee and went on to launch two more feature films, three made-for-TV movies and a TV series starring Sally Field.

About then Zuckerman began rereading the girlish diaries she'd kept about daily life at Malibu -- "the Bu" -- during the summers of 1956 and 1957, with their notes about the people her father would later fictionalize in his book.

On a recent morning at home, she brought out those five well- thumbed volumes, the secret thoughts of a teen-age girl about puppy love, her fixation with being flat-chested and other weighty matters. In those days, she says, "Sex, scandal and drugs, there was none of that." Leafing through the pages, she laughs and says, "It was a lot about the boys."

Those boys were the surfers she hung around with, including Bill Jensen, on whom she had a "terrible, terrible crush." In Gidget the book, Jensen is "Moondoggie," a role re-created in the movie by James Darren.

In real life, almost all of the surfers, a loose-knit group of about 20 guys, had nicknames. There were Bubblehead, the Hawk (known for his prowess at spotting babes), Meatloaf, Golden Boy, Beetle. Some of the old-time surfers say there was a Moondoggie; others think that was a derivation of a surfer called Boondoggie. In any event, it wasn't Jensen. The great Kahoona, as played in the film by Cliff Robertson, was based on Terry-Michael Tracy, called Tubesteak for the steakhouse he worked at, who did live in that shack on the beach.

Listening to his daughter's tales about the surfers, screenwriter Frederick Kohner decided there was a book. He jazzed up the story a bit by adding a wild beach party and a fire set off by wave-riding surfers holding torches. The fictional surfers were a composite of legends of the day such as Mickey "Da Cat" Dora, Matt Kivlin and Mickey "the Mongoose" Munoz.

Those were innocent days, those days of balsa-wood longboards. Jensen says: "There weren't any drugs around. We drank a lot of beer and wine. There were some real mavericks and characters, but nobody was doing anything that would put you in jail."

Through the years, he says, the surfers have embellished their stories, and some memories have become hazy. But he remembers clearly that, despite Kathy Kohner's crush on him, "we looked at her more like a little sister. She was about 15 and I was 20."

So much for the plot line of the movie, in which Gidget and Moondoggie are an item.

One of the surfers, Les Arndt, a 65-year-old retired airline executive living in Coronado, recalls Kathy as "a great, gutsy little girl who was a very good intermediate surfer. She was pretty much adopted by the guys. We had no idea until later that she was keeping a diary, but it was a very innocent sort of thing."

He says no one resented the attention that came her way, but "we thought the story was hokey" and the movie surfing scenes laughable. "They'd have four, five or six surfers on a wave. The idea was to be alone on the wave. And all this dancing and partying on the beach never happened."

Brian Gillogly, 51, of Los Angeles, who is making a documentary "about the real Gidget vs. the fictional Gidget," says Zuckerman was an accidental icon, good for the surfing industry but bad for Malibu because "it went from 50 people in the break on a good day to 200 people."

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