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Jew at the ‘Bu

Laguna Art Museum exhibit exposes the real Gidget.

by Mike Levy

September 5, 2002 | 8:00 pm

In June 1956, Kathy Kohner, a Jewish girl from Brentwood, began tagging along with some of the neighborhood boys driving out to Malibu. The new sport of surfing intrigued her, and she convinced the boys to teach her. Because she was young, slight and a girl, the surfers took to calling her "Gidget," short for girl midget.

The story is true. Gidget is real, and she's Jewish.

The Laguna Art Museum's current exhibit, "Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing," examines the impact of the culture that developed on those beaches with the works of artists who surf and surfers who make art. As with their 1993 hot rod exhibit, "Kustom Kulture," the Laguna Art Museum takes a serious look at the art and the impact of Southern California surf culture; a wave that swelled and broke over America in the '60s when Gidget hit the screen.

Whether they admit it -- or like it -- surfers and artists have been influenced by Kathy Kohner (now Kathy Kohner Zuckerman). Gidget not only learned to surf, but she also talked all about the goings-on at "the 'Bu" to her screenwriter father, Frederick Kohner, a Czech-born Nazi refugee who came to Los Angeles in 1933. Frederick Kohner, who co-wrote the 1938 Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Mad About Music," wrote the novel "Gidget" in 1957 based on his daughter's experiences and the new surfer lingo she brought home from the beach. That book inspired the first of many Gidget movies in 1959, starring decidedly non-Jewish sweetheart Sandra Dee. Those movies spawned three separate TV series, the first introducing Sally Field as everybody's favorite little surfer girl.

In 1964, when Kathy Kohner married Yiddish scholar Marvin Zuckerman (who recently retired as Los Angeles Valley College dean of academic affairs), her fictional namesake had already gone to Hawaii and Rome. Now a 61-year-old grandmother, Gidget is an honorary member of the Malibu Surfing Association and still occasionally gets out in the waves.

On Sept. 29, the museum presents "All About Gidget," a discussion with Kathy Kohner Zuckerman (that's Gidget to you) and journalist Deanne Stillman.

Stillman, a sometime surfer herself ("I can often be spotted hanging 20," she jokes), had not realized Gidget was a real person until she took a job writing for the 1986 revival TV series "The New Gidget." The Laguna Art Museum exhibit is accompanied by a 240-page, full-color book that includes Stillman's essay "The Real Gidget."

As surf culture became more heavily commercialized in the 1980s, Stillman discovered that the original "Gidget" book had gone out of print. The journalist and author ("Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave") campaigned for its re-release; it was published in June 2001 with Stillman's introduction and has already sold through its initial printing. "I realized what a lost treasure the book is," Stillman says. "The real Gidget is a cultural treasure, and the book is like a message in a bottle."

In Laguna, they are taking that message out of the bottle and hanging it on the walls.

"Surf Culture: The Art and History of Surfing" runs through Oct. 6 at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. On Sept. 29, 5 p.m., Kathy Kohner Zuckerman and Deanne Stillman talk "All About Gidget" at the museum. For more information, call (949) 494-6531 or visit www.lagunaartmuseum.org .

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