Surfer girl, forever

Times Staff Writer

THE 18-year-old surfer girl with the sun-bleached hair is breathing heavily and turning bright red as she approaches her idol, a diminutive grandmother who is signing books after a lecture on surfing history at UC San Diego.

Tears well up in the girl’s eyes when she comes face to face with Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, the plucky surfing icon known to the world as “Gidget.”

“You are my hero,” the girl stammers.

Zuckerman has been bouncing around the country lately, making public appearances at surfing museum openings, surfing contests and beach festivals. But this is the first time she can recall anyone getting emotional at meeting her.


Minutes earlier, Zuckerman was bubbling with enthusiasm before an audience of 50 or so, including rosy-cheeked college kids and gray-haired surfers in Hawaiian shirts. She pranced among the blown-up photos that chronicled her life. There she is with Sandra Dee. That’s her on a surfboard in Malibu. Here she is with her father reading the “Gidget” book.

But when the sobbing surfer girl calls her a hero, Zuckerman is dumbfounded. Gidget a hero?

To the outside world, she was that sassy teenager whose fun-loving exploits in Malibu 50 years ago were the basis of the “Gidget” books, movies and TV shows. To the surfing world, she was the novice wave rider who exposed surfing’s subculture to America’s mainstream. And to a handful of purists, she was the reason California’s best surfing spots have been overrun by pushy kooks and annoying wannabes.

What’s all this hero talk?

Her first ride

It’s the summer of 1956 and a spunky 15-year-old tomboy from Brentwood wanders along the beach in Malibu when she comes upon a group of sun-baked men in cutoff jeans, hanging around a rickety shack made out of palm fronds and driftwood.

She asks if she can borrow one of the balsa-wood surfboards that lean against the shack. She never surfed before but is eager to try. The men consider this short-haired pixie and agree to loan her a board in exchange for her lunch, two peanut butter-and-radish sandwiches.

Later, when she returns from the surf, one of the surfers calls her “Gidget,” a fusion of “girl” and “midget.” The girl doesn’t protest. It means she is accepted into the gang of surfers with names like Moondoggie, Bubblehead and Beetle. She was the Gidget.


At home, she spills her excitement onto the pages of her diary:

June 24th, 1956.

Dear Diary:

I didn’t do too much but go to the beach. I didn’t think I’d have fun but I met Matt [Kivlin] and he took me out on his surfboard. He let me catch the waves by myself and once I fell off and the board went flying in the air. I didn’t get hurt at all.... I hope Matt will take me surfing again.

She excitedly tells her father about her vagabond surfing friends. How they live for nothing -- not nice cars or stylish clothes -- but to surf. She tells him about the lingo they use to describe how “jazzed” and “stoked” they get when they catch a “bitchin” wave.

The girl’s father is a Hollywood script writer who decides to write about this odd surfing subculture. In six weeks, he produces his first book, a fictional tale called “Gidget.” It becomes a phenomenon in 1957, outselling Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Two years later, Hollywood releases the “Gidget” movie, starring Sandra Dee, followed by two sequels and a 1965-66 television series starring Sally Field.

Suddenly, everybody wants a part of the fun-filled beach life depicted in the “Gidget” movies, the subsequent “Beach Blanket” spinoffs and the sentimental Beach Boys tunes.


Back at Malibu, hordes of surfers pack themselves shoulder-to-shoulder on the breaking wave, evidence that Gidgetmania has changed surfing forever. Moondoggie and the rest of the gang are uprooted when lifeguards demolish the palm-frond shack. Even Gidget is turned off to surfing when she returns from college to find Malibu overrun with newcomers.

“There were too many boards,” she says, remembering the scene. “Too many surfers.”

‘Gidget haters’

It’s an overcast weekday when Zuckerman, now 65, returns to the scene of the crime, Surfrider Beach in Malibu. The waves are flat and only one surfer remains, a teenage girl who lugs an oversized surfboard out of the water. The girl trudges past Zuckerman, barely glancing at the 5-foot-1 surfing icon sitting in the sand in a pink hat and matching blouse.

Zuckerman points to a small cove near the pier. This is where Gidget learned to surf. A few other girls surfed Malibu back in 1956 but not many. Gidget, still tan and energetic, occasionally surfs but only when the water is warm and the waves are gentle.

She points to a sand heap near a white brick wall. That is where Zuckerman hung out with surfers like Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy, Bill Jensen, Mike Doyle and half a dozen other surfers at the palm-frond shack.

And that is where “Tubesteak” dubbed her Gidget. The rest is surfing history.

“She started that whole thing,” says Tracy. “Back then, surfing was a West Coast thing but Gidget was nationwide. You can walk into any bar in Peoria, Ill., and mention that name, Gidget, and they’ve heard of it.”

So when places like Surfrider Beach, San Onofre and County Line became overrun by throngs of surfcrashers, some surfers blamed Gidget. She was an easy target. Some “Gidget haters” didn’t know or care that Gidget was a real person.


Fred Reiss, a 51-year-old surfer from Santa Cruz, wrote a novel in 1995 about a surfer who returns to Malibu 30 years later to kill everyone involved in the “Gidget” movie for ruining his surf spot. The book, “Gidget Must Die,” was a cheap shot but Reiss says the story was rooted in the real-life resentment many surfers felt toward Gidget.

“I worked at a Santa Cruz surf shop for seven years, and I met most of the legends, as well as tons of guys from the ‘60s period, and nearly all of them said, ‘Gidget ruined surfing,’ ” he says.

But Gidget has legions of fans who insist she has been unfairly blamed for a surfing craze that was ready to explode anyway because of advances in surfboard technology and a counterculture movement that reshaped the country in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

Dick Metz, a lifelong surfer and founder of the Surfing Heritage Foundation in San Clemente, says those who blame Gidget don’t know their surfing history.

At the time of the “Gidget” movies, he says, the popular balsa-wood longboards were being replaced by shorter, lighter polyurethane foam shortboards. The new, easily maneuverable boards, he says, were a big reason surfing caught fire in the 1960s.

“The change of materials was going to change the sport,” he says. “I don’t care if there was a book or a movie.”


Zuckerman’s father, Frederick Kohner, wasn’t the only one to profit from Gidgetmania. Locals like Miki “Da Cat” Dora, Johnny Fain and Mickey Munoz got paid to perform the surfing stunts for the “Gidget” movie.

“Some people want to blame Gidget. How about blaming Hollywood?” says Jerome Lynne Hall, the UC San Diego anthropology professor who invited Zuckerman to speak at his surfing history course.

As for Zuckerman, she shrugs off such criticism. After all, how could she foresee the popularity of the “Gidget” books, the movies and, ultimately, the surfing lifestyle, she asks. She was just a kid trying to fit in somewhere and she found that place among the surfers.

“I was as innocent as the day was long,” she says.

When she left for college in 1958, Zuckerman left surfing behind. She married a Yiddish scholar, moved to Pacific Palisades, raised two kids and worked as a teacher and later a part-time restaurant hostess. When reporters called to ask if she was the original Gidget, she would answer, “Yeah, so what? Why does anyone care?”

But now the surfing world does care.

Getting her due

In the last few years, Zuckerman has been the honored guest at pro surfing competitions, surfing museum openings and surfing festivals. In 1999, the bible of surfing, Surfer Magazine, named Zuckerman the seventh most influential surfer of the century. Two years ago, she was dubbed “patron” of the Rip Curl Malibu Pro Women’s Championship Tour.

“To most of the public, she was the first girl to surf,” says Marty Thomas, a spokesman for Rip Curl, the surfing and snowboarding company that invited Zuckerman to the event.


Gidget’s resurgence has come during a nostalgic phase in the surfing world. In the last decade, veteran surfers have opened surfing museums, filmed surfing documentaries and published commemorative surfing magazines. Maybe the renewed interest in longboards in the late 1980s spurred old-school surfers to feel nostalgic for the early days. Maybe the deaths of several surfing pioneers, such as Dora in 2002, forced the surfing world to reconsider its history.

Whatever the reason for the look back, in surfing’s rear-view mirror, Gidget has gained respect as a surfing pioneer who helped break surfing’s gender barrier.

Debbie Beacham, the 1982 women’s surfing champion, taught herself to surf on a used surfboard she bought at a garage sale in Coronado after watching Sally Field in the “Gidget” television series.

“It seemed so mysterious and different and nobody did it where I was from,” Beacham says.

“There’s a lot of good that came from Gidget,” says surfing hall of famer Jericho Poppler Bartlow, who co-founded the Women’s International Surfing Assn. “She made girls realize they could do something that was considered just a man’s thing.”

After her visit to Surfrider Beach, Zuckerman stops by Duke’s, a warm seaside restaurant in Malibu where she works twice a week as a hostess. The place is named for Duke Kahanamoku, the Olympic swimmer who spread the gospel of surfing to Australia and America in the early 1900s. A black-and-white photo of a 15-year-old Gidget in Malibu shares the wall with grainy photos of Duke poised on a giant balsa-wood board.

Customers routinely wander around the restaurant gazing at the photos. When they stop at the picture of Gidget, Zuckerman rushes over.


“That’s me,” she announces.

The customers give her a quizzical look.

“I’m the girl on the beach,” she says. “I’m Gidget.”

Then she leads them to a table and recounts stories from the summer of 1956 and that little shack on the beach.