Nickname for Kathy Kohner of Brentwood, California, whose lightly fictionalized life as a teenage surfing neophyte at Malibu in the mid-1950s became a durable pop culture phenomenon, branching into books, movies, comics, television, and theater. "It was Gidget," Los Angeles magazine noted in 1994, "along with the Beach Boys, who gave surfing its most memorable turn in the great American youth culture parade."
Kohner was born (1941) in Los Angeles and raised in the fashionable west Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood; her parents were well-to-do Czechoslovakian Jews who had fled the Holocaust. Frederick Kohner, her father, with a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Vienna, became an Academy Award-nominated screenplay writer and Broadway playwright, and occasionally taught classes at University of California, Los Angeles, and at the University of Southern California.
Kohner, a five-foot, 95-pound 10th grader, began surfing at Malibu in the summer of 1956 and became, in her words, the "group mascot" to Terry "Tubesteak" Tracy, Kemp Aaberg, and another half-dozen Malibu regulars who in large part set the tone for California surfing. It was Tracy who said that Kohner looked like a girl-midget—a "Gidget." Kohner spent her summer days learning to surf and trying her best to fit in with the Malibu crew (in part by distributing a bottomless supply of homemade sandwiches), then went home and relayed all to her parents in long, gushing teen-speak soliloquies. It was her idea to do a book about her new Malibu beach life; her father took on the project in early 1957, and in just six weeks wrote Gidget, his first novel.
New York's G. P. Putnam published the hardcover edition of Gidget in September; Life magazine followed up with "Gidget Makes the Grade," a photo feature showing Kohner surfing at Malibu, and hanging out on the sand with Tracy and the rest of the crew. "Among surfers themselves," Life reported, "the novel [Gidget] made hardly a ripple. 'If I had a couple of bucks to buy a book,' said one, 'I wouldn't. I'd buy some beer.'"
Francine Lawrence is the whip-smart, slightly manic heroine of Gidget, in love equally with surfing and surfer-boy Moondoggie. The book is both funnier and darker than the like-titled movies and television shows that followed. The surfers talk dirtier, and the tedium and peril of '50s suburban living are rendered as vividly as the easygoing good times. Author Frederick Kohner, a 51-year-old nonsurfer who didn't learn English until his 20s, does an excellent job at describing the thrill of learning to surf. "I felt so jazzed about this ride," Gidget says after her first wave, "I could have yelled."
Every day, someone else let me have a board to practice. On Don Pepe's board I learned how to keep in the center and paddle evenly—on Hot Shot Harrison's how to control the direction you're taking with your feet—on Malibu Mac's how to get out of a "boneyard" when you're caught in the middle of a set of breakers—and on Scooterboy Miller's hot rod I learned how to avoid a pearl dive. The great Kahoona showed me how to push the shoulders up and slide the body back—to spring to your feet quickly, putting them under you in one motion. That's quite tricky. But then, surf-riding is not playing Monopoly and the more I got the knack of it, the more I was crazy about it and the more I was crazy about it, the harder I worked at it.
Gidget sold a half million copies, and Kohner was hired to write the script for the 1959 Columbia Pictures movie version—Hollywood's first surf film—which became a nationwide hit starring Sandra Dee and James Darren.
Mickey Dora, Johnny Fain, and Mike Doyle were among the top Californian surfers who stunt-surfed in Gidget, with bantamweight Mickey Muñoz in a blond wig and bikini doubling for Sandra Dee. The "Malibu" surfing clips in the movie were shot at Leo Carillo, about 20 miles north of Malibu; the real Malibu was already overrun with teenage gremmies and hodads. Kathy Kohner, meanwhile, enrolled at Oregon State College had quit surfing altogether by the time the film released. "My ego was never tied into being Gidget," she later said. "I was just a girl who surfed, and the guys named me Gidget, then I left and everything kind of went crazy."
Things did indeed go crazy. "To the chagrin of surfers suddenly having to share waves with the hordes," surf writer Andrea Gabbard wrote in 2001, "and to the delight of those who would create business out of surfing, Gidget lured inland America to the beach." In 2002 surfer/filmmaker Craig Stecyk called the decades-long infatuation American audiences had with Gidget "the most successful and longest-running episode of teenage exploitation since Joan of Arc."
Surf culture continued its rapid growth over the next few years: Surfer magazine was founded in 1960; the Beach Boys had their first hit in 1962; and Beach Party, the first in a series of bubbly Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movies, was released in 1963. Gidget Goes Hawaiian, Frederick Kohner's sequel, was published in 1961, and almost simultaneously made into a movie, with Deborah Walley replacing Sandra Dee in the title role. Kohner also wrote Gidget Goes to Rome (1962, also made into a movie), The Affairs of Gidget (1963), Gidget in Love (1965), Gidget Goes Parisian (1966), and Gidget Goes New York (1969).
In 1965, ABC debuted Gidget, a short-lived half-hour comedy series starring 18-year-old Sally Field, and Milton-Bradley released Gidget Fortune Teller Game; the following year brought the debut issue of the Dell-produced Gidget comic book. The New Gidget, a syndicated TV series with Gidget and Moondoggie married and living with their rambunctious Gidget-like niece, ran from 1986 to 1988. Other small-screen adaptations include the animated Gidget Makes the Wrong Connection, and a pair of made-for-TV movies, Gidget Gets Married (1972) and Gidget's Summer Reunion (1985). Fred Reiss's Gidget Must Die: A Killer Surf Novel, a black-comedy harangue about Southern California's overcrowded surf breaks, was published in 1995. Hollywood producer/director Francis Ford Coppola cowrote Gidget: The Musical, which in 2000 had a brief but sold-out run in Los Alamitos, California.
After college Kathy Kohner returned to California, married a Yiddish scholar, and had two children; she worked as a bookstore clerk, travel agent, and restaurant hostess. With surf world nostalgia on the rise in the late '90s (first edition copies of Gidget have been sold for up to $1,000), Kohner finally embraced her surfing alter ego, began selling black-and-white reproductions of her Malibu scrapbook photographs, and in 1999 founded a "Gidget" line of postcards. She was featured on the cover of the March 1999 issue of Wahine magazine, and later that year Surfer named her as the seventh most influential surfer in history. "If not for that pervasive Gidget myth, however homogenized," Surfer wrote, "American youth would have missed one of the most potent archetypes available in the early '60s—a rebellion based not on angst or anger, but on joy."
Gidget was reprinted in the summer of 2001, with Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman writing a new foreword. Cowabunga! Gidget Goes Encyclopedia, a 248-page reference book, was published in 2001. Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story, a documentary that explores the impact of Gidget on the surf world, came out in 2011.