Still surfing the waves, living the dream

Pop Culture

April 04, 2004|By Aline Mendelsohn | Aline Mendelsohn,ORLANDO SENTINEL

At Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach, Fla., amid the buzz from fans waiting for the "real Gidget" to autograph their books, a girl of about 6 has a question.

She faces the honey-haired woman sitting on the stage and asks, "Are you a surfer?"

Kathy Kohner Zuckerman stops signing in mid-sentence and peers at the girl through thick-framed glasses.

"She asked if I'm a surfer," Zuckerman repeats loudly. Then she smiles at the child and answers, "I am the legend. I was the first girl surfer."

Zuckerman still seems girlish, even though she is 63 and a grandmother of two. She has kept the joyful gleam in her eyes, the wide, easy smile.

Before Sandra Dee and Sally Field personified the role in movies and television, Zuckerman was Gidget, a tiny teen-ager who braved the waves and refused to let any boy tell her what she could or couldn't do.

It was the summer of 1956. Zuckerman - then Kathy Kohner - was 15, small in size but not spirit.

An original California girl, she spent her days at Malibu Beach, where the girls primped and sunned themselves while the boys rode the waves. But Zuckerman didn't just want to watch.

The guys saw her as a little girl and at first brushed her off. But she soon won them over.

`She wanted to fit in'

She brought them peanut butter and radish sandwiches, which they scarfed down. They helped her learn to surf and nicknamed her Gidget, for "girl midget."

"She was awfully cute, a perky little gal," says Genie Seagrave-Smith, who met Zuckerman on the beach in the '50s.

Seagrave-Smith also remembers her as "a pain in the butt to the rest of us who were so much older. She wanted to fit in so badly, in a desperate way."

That summer, Zuckerman fell in love with Bill Jensen. The surfer was five years older and he did like her a lot, but in the way you like a little sister.

Zuckerman spent some days that summer nursing a broken heart. She also fell in love with surfing. One day, she gushed in her journal: "Dear Diary, The Bu [Malibu] gets good once a summer and it got good. ... Brother, was I ever jazzed. Brother, was I ever stoked."

Zuckerman wanted to write a story about surfing. Screenwriter Frederick Kohner, her father, decided to write a fictional account of her adventures. In the book, a girl named Gidget falls for the surfer Moondoggie, modeled after Jensen.

Gidget rose to No. 7 on the 1957 best-seller list, ahead of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and it spun a hit movie starring Sandra Dee.

"It really launched the sport of surfing into the mass consciousness," says Brian Gillogly, who is working on a documentary titled In the Sun: The Real Gidget Story. "She was the spark, a lot of people say, for better or for worse."

"The so-called lifestyle took off," recalls Bill Jensen. "Everyone wanted to be a blond-haired, blue-eyed surfer type."

Some surfers resented the Gidget phenomenon because it unleashed a torrent of wannabes who invaded their subculture. Within a few years, things didn't feel the same.

Zuckerman's surfer boys had joined the Army, and the notion of a girl surfer had lost its novelty: "Now every little girl was bebopping around," she says. She quit surfing.

Riding the waves

Zuckerman went to college at Oregon State University, majoring in physical education.

She fell in love a few more times - "I was always falling in love," she says - and after graduation, she married and had two children. She worked as a substitute teacher, a travel agent and a restaurant hostess.

She never missed the surfing.

Then, in the early '90s, Zuckerman was asked to take part in a cancer fund-raiser that involved surfing legends. She hadn't been on a surfboard for more than 30 years, but for the cause, she decided to overcome her fear. And as she rode the waves again, Zuckerman screamed in exhilaration, and she remembered why she loved the surf.

Today, Zuckerman surfs every so often. She still keeps in touch with members of the old crew, including the real-life Moondoggie, her former crush Jensen ("We get a big chuckle out of it," he says). She stays plugged into the scene by working as a hostess at the surf-themed Duke's Malibu Restaurant, where everyone calls her "Gidget."

She autographs the newest version of Gidget - re-released in 2001 with a foreword by Zuckerman - with breezy inscriptions: "Go hang ten." "Keep surfing the dream." "May all your waves bring you home."

Kathy Gardner of Cocoa Beach approaches Zuckerman clutching a worn 1961 edition of Gidget.

"This inspired me," Gardner tells Zuckerman. Gardner is a petite, white-haired woman with a gold surfer-girl pendant. She surfed every day until multiple sclerosis took over last year.

"This is amazing," Zuckerman says of the book. She hesitates to autograph it, fearing the pages will crumble at her touch, but Gardner insists. Zuckerman opens the book to the title page and writes, "Kathy, Always follow your dreams. I did."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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