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CRITIC AT LARGE

The Novel Origins Of 'Gidget'

September 13, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The new fall television lineup, now unreeling before us, will include a series for syndication called "The New Gidget." It is a situation comedy based on the later-life adventures of the teen-ager who surfed at Malibu in the mid-'50s and came to the movie screen in the pretty person of Sandra Dee.

Whatever else turns out to be true of it, "The New Gidget" becomes a farewell salute to Frederick Kohner, the screenwriter who wrote "Gidget" as his first novel, in 1957. Kohner died in July at the age of 80, too soon to catch and enjoy fully the latest wave of the Gidget phenomenon he had launched three decades before.

It seems spang in the American tradition that the lighthearted celebration of the all-American rituals of beach and surf should have been the work of a man born in a distant place in another time and within a culture vastly different from the Southern California littoral.

Fred Kohner was in fact born in one of those places that keep changing countries. Teplitz-Schoenau, a spa town not far from Prague, was then in Bohemia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A war or two later it became part of Czechoslovakia, and still is.

Kohner's father started one of the earliest movie trade papers in Europe and also ran a cinema. He came to be known as KinoKohner. Fred went to the University of Vienna and to the Sorbonne, where he wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the film as an art form. (In 1967 he translated the pleasures of being an innocent young man growing wise in Paris into another novel, "Kiki of Montparnasse.")

He became a newspaperman in Prague but then, amid the worsening Nazi oppression of the Jews, fled to Hollywood in 1936 with his wife Fritzi and their first daughter, Ruth.

Fred's older brother Paul had come to town several years earlier as a kind of honorary nephew of Uncle Carl Laemmle of Universal, a legend for importing his European relatives to work at the studio. Paul had worked in the Universal offices in New York, repaying his passage money at $5 a week. He came on to Hollywood and by the mid-'30s Paul was, as he remains, a major talent agent, partnered with a third Kohner brother, Walter, representing John Huston and Charles Bronson among others.

Fred collaborated on the scripts of two Deanna Durbin films, "It's a Date" and "Mad About Music," wrote a Loretta Young feature, "The Men in Her Life," and many another script.

In 1941, the Kohners had another daughter, Katherine, who when she was 15 rather fatefully took up surfing at Malibu. She was and is a scant five feet tall and, in affectionate surfese, "girl" and "midget" seemed to telescope into "Gidget."

It was initially Kathy Kohner's thought to write about Kahoona and the other salt-haired characters she met on boards. But it was father who in the end knew best how to translate this then little-reported subculture into fiction. Reviewers were so startled by the life style that some of them couldn't be sure whether he was kidding, had wigged out or was making it all up.

But whatever the concordances between fiction and fact, Fred Kohner had obviously done something right. After the original "Gidget" in 1957, seven more Gidget stories followed, a million copies' worth in 10 languages. The movie "Gidget" in 1959, with Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson, Doug McClure and James Darren, was followed by two more. Deborah Walley was Gidget in "Gidget Goes Hawaiian" in 1961 and in 1963 Cindy Carol took the role in "Gidget Goes to Rome."

Very early in her career, Sally Field was television's Gidget in a series still in circulation after 20 years. In movies for television Karen Valentine did "Gidget Grows Up" in 1969, Monie Ellis starred in "Gidget Gets Married" in 1972.

Meanwhile, the real Gidget has been living her own life. Now 45 and the mother of two sons (one surfs, one doesn't), she lives in Pacific Palisades and is married to Marvin Zuckerman, who chairs the English department at L.A. Valley College. She is a travel agent and no longer surfs herself, although she says she looks in on surfing events from time to time and is asked to present the odd trophy or two, being as near to a patron saint as the sport has.

The new series began life as a two-hour television film, "Gidget's Summer Reunion," which aired in June. Real time has been foreshortened. The new Gidget (Caryn Richman) is 28, runs her own travel agency, is married to Moon Doggie--now a city planner--and worries about a niece who is nuts about surfing.

With Harry Ackerman as executive producer, "The New Gidget" makes its debut Monday and the old, original Gidget will watch with interest--she has a piece of the action. William Schallert plays the new Gidget's kind and long-suffering father, and I suspect that Fred Kohner would be pleased, even if he entertained mixed feelings about the fictional Gidget who came to overshadow the other achievements of a long and distinguished career.

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