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Surfer girl, forever

The woman who inspired `Gidget' rides a wave of surf nostalgia.

June 17, 2006|Hugo Martin | 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 20, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
The original "Gidget": An article in Saturday's Calendar about Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, the woman who inspired the "Gidget" books, movies and TV series, reported that she spoke before a group at UC San Diego. She spoke at the University of San Diego. The article identified the person who invited her as Jerome Lynne Hall, an anthropology professor at UC San Diego. He is a professor at the University of San Diego.

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.

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