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Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, January 22, 2001

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Kathy Kohner was the inspiration for 1960s
surfer girl "Gidget."

Gidget grows up

Original 'Gidget,' teen icon
of the '60s, turns 60

By Burl Burlingame

LL girls, said Kathy "Gidget" Kohner, need a "third place" as they become teens -- somewhere apart from home and school, a refuge that is special, a place all their own. For Kohner, growing up in Southern California in the late '50s, that place was the beach at Malibu.

"The Bu," she recalls, "was bitchin'."

It was sun-kissed, private, in the country, glassy perfect waves rolling in from across the wide Pacific, a hideaway for kids fascinated by the tiny subculture of surfing. They all had nicknames: Tubesteak, Quik, Golden Boy, Scooterboy, The Jaw, The Fencer, Kahuna, Moondoggie.

Courtesy photo
She's shown in her surfing heyday.

Kohner, tiny and determined, bought a surfboard for $35 and insisted on being included. The kids at the beach dubbed her "Gidget," for "girl midget."

That was the past. Let's go to the present. Gidget, now Kathy Kohner Zuckerman -- and marking her 36th wedding anniversary with husband Marvin Zuckerman -- turned 60 this weekend. But what else can we call her, other than Gidget? The term "Gidget" is not only part of the English language, it is is a vital link to one of the major American cultural shifts of the 20th century, the celebration of the beach and of youth culture. Gidget is an icon to teen-age girls everywhere, and a kind of team mascot in surfing history.

Gidget's father, screenwriter Fred Kohner, wrote a 1958 novel based on his daughter's experiences and within six weeks of publication,

a film based on the book was in preparation. Starring Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson and James Darren, "Gidget" was an enormous hit in 1959, the first Hollywood motion picture to feature surfing, spawning sequels, more novels and a couple of TV series.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Kohner turned 60 Friday. Here, she caught up
with surfing buddy Ted Gugelyk at the Kahala
Mandarin Hotel.

The books are being reissued this summer by Putnam Penguin. Francis Ford Coppola is preparing a musical based on the original novel. And after avoiding the beach for a few decades, the real Gidget is longboarding again.

Gidget was determined to party her 60th in Hawaii, the birthplace of surfing, and she contacted author, publisher and surfer Ted Gugelyk, a Malibu buddy and classmate at University High. Friday night, Duke's in Waikiki was packed with older surfers toasting Gidget's birthday -- and their own survival.

Gidget and Gugelyk met in a hotel lobby Thursday and the memories came flooding back. They had not seen each other in 42 years. He recognized her as soon as she smiled.

Back to the past. "My mother would drive these neighborhood kids to the beach in a Model T, with the boards sticking out the back, and she didn't want me spending my Saturdays at the movie theaters. So I had to go to the beach. There wasn't much there at the time: a shack where Tubesteak lived and a place near the wall called The Pit where we had bonfires."

But it was the sight of those long, '50s boards knifing relentlessly through the swells, surfers triumphant and windswept and rolling through space and time and current, part of nature and apart from the buzz of humanity that got to her.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Kathy Kohner, left, gets a hug from her college
roommate Kathy Hayden. They were at Oregon
State together and got together at Duke's Restaurant
Friday night to celebrate Kohner's 60th birthday and
36th wedding anniversary.

"I was determined to surf," Gidget says. "There were lots of girl surfers already, but I wanted to be part of that culture. I harassed everyone."

"She was a tag-along," Gugelyk says gallantly.

"Ha! I was a pest," says Gidget. "I'd call Ted on Wednesday night to make sure I wasn't left out of their plans for the weekend."

"It wasn't a boy-girl thing," says Gugelyk. "Gidge was like a little sister."

"Absolutely nothing sexual at all," said Gidget.

Any regrets in that regard?

They both got the giggles, which is pretty cute in people turning 60.

"It was the '50s," said Gugelyk. "There weren't even any drugs. The most we did was drink a little wine."

"The thing was," said Gidget, "I had this terrible, terrible crush on Moondoggie."

She still has her diaries, filled with daily reminders of the golden community of outcasts who impressed her so. Moondoggie got his name because he grew his hair long and his beard luxurious, and would shake the saltwater out like a St. Bernard when he came dashing manfully out of the surf. To underdeveloped, teen-age Gidget, Moondoggie was a glorious vision of something just out of reach.

The parents of both Gugelyk and Gidget were refugees from the Holocaust, not familiar with English. Gugelyk remembers bitter men with numbers on their arms drinking and smoking in his parents' darkened kitchen; Gidget's parents dealt with the past by banishing it to the dustbin of memory.

"Were we the oddballs in the school?" wondered Gugelyk. "There are an amazing number of surfing Jews, you know."

"My parents were working in Berlin and we moved to California when I was 15," said Gidget. "What I discovered was that the girls had known each other forever and I was the outsider. I didn't fit in. But I did at Malibu. It felt exclusive. A sub-culture."

At the beach, kids could reinvent themselves, get by on talent and personality and moxie. "Gidget" is a peculiarly and thoroughly American character.

Only four kids in their school surfed, and when one of them made a surfboard in wood class, the teacher didn't know what it was. They'd spot each other on the highways and give secret hand-signals to pass on surf conditions.

"We were attuned to the winds, the currents, the motions of the earth and sea; none of the other kids gave a rip," said Gugelyk. "As soon as I learned to surf, I said to hell with high-school football."

Gidget had a vague idea about writing a story based on her diary entries and discussed it with her father. After a couple of false starts, he took over the project. "Gidget -- The Little Girl With Big Ideas" was a sensation when it appeared, particularly when it was turned into a film and a three-act play in 1959.

" 'Gidget' is a novel, completely fictional," Gidget says, "Although the characters are true-to-life. And my crush on Moondoggie ..."

That famous crush. It wasn't surfing that rang the bells of teen-age girls across the land, it was the book's uncanny crystallization of that moment in a girl's life when the world opens up, and life beyond home -- exciting, romantic, frightening -- comes into focus. The need for a "third place," the platform between childhood and womanhood. The last, bittersweet moments of innocence.

"The outcasts create their own society, and their place in it. It's up to you," says Gidget, and that's the lesson of "Gidget."

"I mean, I went to the beach, and there was a guy living in a shack, just so he could surf all the time. Imagine that! I sure couldn't, not at that age. Doesn't everyone have a mom and a dad and a house? I was amazed. The concept changed me."

The movie "Gidget" rolled over the tiny surfing community like a tsunami. Suddenly, everybody was a gremmie or a ho-dad, wannabes poured pell-mell into the waves. "I wondered what the fuss was," said Gidget. "I got scared and dropped out."

Gidget, during her first year of college, had a Hawaiian boyfriend and visited the islands. "My first real romance," Gidget sighs. She still has the snapshots, the petite, Jewish girl kissed by the sun. But she had stopped surfing. The moment had passed, like a swell that didn't break.

She married, worked at a variety of jobs, including that of travel agent, a detail incorporated into the TV series "The New Gidget." She didn't have much to do with the films; "Sandra Dee was afraid of the water! And Deborah Walley complained to me once that she made 70 movies and only one people remember is 'Gidget Goes Hawaiian.' "

She's now a hostess at a restaurant -- a job she loves, given her big smile and charming friendliness -- and lives only a few miles from where she grew up.

Surfing was long ago and far away. Another lifetime.

Then, her old Hawaiian boyfriend looked her up a few years ago just to say hi. She didn't give his name for fear of embarrassing him, but his gesture of friendliness across the decades touched her deeply.

"You know," she said, "When you're closing in on 60, life becomes a crapshoot. You have to gather those you love around you. And tell them that you love them."

And she discovered that, even after all these years, she still loved surfing. "It's innocent and fun, and we were getting away from our parents, but mainly, it's just you and that board. You're independent. I was never competitive, except with myself, but I slept well at night and I had a healthy appetite and I couldn't wait to get up the next morning. When was the last time anyone felt that way?"

So, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, Part II finds Kohner back in the water and attending longboard tournaments. She saw her first big waves, ever, last week on the North Shore and, naturally, bumped into someone who used to surf The Bu in '58. And she's looking up old surfing buddies like Gugelyk.

"We're the lucky ones, the survivors," said Gugelyk.

What did they first say to each other after 42 years?

"What can you say? There's volumes to tell," said Gidget. "The first word out of our mouths was 'aloha.' An incredible word, it means so much and covers so much, both said, and unsaid. It just doesn't get any better than 'aloha.' "

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