Thursday, September 27, 2012


Just about everyone knows the iconic story of “Gidget,” the California teen who rode the waves long before The Beach Boys sang "Surfer Girl." But did you know that Gidget is a real person? It's true. That's her with the longboard in the picture above.

It was the summer of ’56, and surfing was just becoming the rage on So-Cal's beaches. At the time, it was virtually unthinkable for a girl to surf.

Then along came Kathy Kohner, a spunky 15-year-old from Brentwood who bravely, defiantly stood up on a surfboard at Malibu's Surfrider Beach with some of the boys from her neighborhood.

The buys surfed, Kathy didn’t, but she convinced them to teach her. The guys teased her mercilessly and started calling her “Gidget” (short for “girl midget”), but she became a good surfer, eventually won their respect, and became one of the first girls to hang ten at Malibu.

When she told the story to her screenwriter father Frederick Kohner, he wrote a novel he titled "Gidget: The Little Girl With Big Dreams."

The rest, of course, is history. The 1957 book sold more than 500,000 copies, and the 1959 movie "Gidget" starring Sandra Dee in the title role, James Darren as Moondoggie, and Cliff Robertson as Kahoona, was a huge hit.

The film immortalized Gidget as part of California’s surf heritage and as a role model for young girls everywhere. Girl power, indeed! The Gidget phenomenon, which spawned a TV series with a young Sally Field and four subsequent movies, helped launch the sport of surfing. 

It sparked an American beach-culture explosion (the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello movies, "EndlessSummer," the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and more).

The real Gidget, Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, is north of 70 now and has several grandkids, but she still lives close to Malibu, and she’s just as gregarious and energetic as she must have been more than 55 years ago when she won Moondoggie's heart. 

Considered a genuine pioneer, especially by young female surfers who meet her, Zuckerman still surfs now and then - though her real surfing days are behind her.

"Before they meet me, most people don’t know Gidget is a real person," Zuckerman told me a while back. "I'm kind of an elder stateswoman now, but I still feel at home on the beach with the other surfers. It's really true what they say, you know: once a surfer, always a surfer."

Zuckerman, who hung out with such legendary surfers as Miki Dora, Mickey Munoz, Dewey Weber, Tom Morey, and Nat Young, was named No. 7 in Surfer Magazine's 25 Most Influential People in Surfing, and was a 2011 inductee into the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach in the Woman of the Year category. 

A documentary on Zuckerman's life titled "Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget," by Emmy-winning television segment producer Brian Gillogly, was released last year on DVD. It got rave reviews.

The movie (Facebook page here) features interviews with several current pro surfers and Academy Award-winners Sally Field and the late Cliff Robertson, and narration by Jorja Fox (from CSI). 

Zuckerman, who still loves being in or near the water and does lots of public speaking, is the "Ambassador of Aloha" at Duke's Restaurant in Malibu, where on Tuesday evenings and Sundays during brunch she greets customers and shares her life story.

By the way, she didn't marry Moondoggie, she married an English Professor instead who’s now the retired dean of Los Angeles Valley College. 

But Moondoggie is real. His name is Bill Jensen, he’s in his mid 70s and living in Taos, New Mexico. He and Gidget, er, Kathy, still keep in touch.


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