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Jewish Journal

The Real Gidget

by Mike Levy

August 22, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Kathy Kohner Zuckerman was the inspiration for the Gidget book and movie. Photo by Ken Hively

Kathy Kohner Zuckerman was the inspiration for the Gidget book and movie. Photo by Ken Hively

In June 1956, a Jewish 15-year-old girl named Kathy Kohner began tagging along with some of the neighborhood boys and driving out from her Brentwood home to the beach in Malibu. The sport of surfing intrigued her, and she convinced the boys to teach her. Because she was young, slight and a girl, the surfer dudes took to calling her "Gidget," short for "girl midget."

When she told her screenwriter dad, Frederick Kohner, a Czech-born refugee who fled from the Nazis, about the goings on, he wrote the 1957 novel, "Gidget," featuring the lingo and subculture she brought home from the beach.

The Laguna Art Museum's current exhibit, "Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing," examines the impact of that subculture; it's accompanied by a 240-page book that includes an essay, "The Real Gidget," by author Deanne Stillman. Stillman and Gidget (now Kathy Kohner Zuckerman) will appear at the museum Sept. 29 for an "All About Gidget" discussion.

The little Jewish surfer girl is still a pop culture icon. The novel inspired the first of many Gidget movies in 1959, starring Sandra Dee, then spawned two TV series, the first introducing a teenage Sally Field, as well as four TV movies.

When Kohner married Marvin Zuckerman, a Yiddish scholar (now a recently retired Los Angeles Valley College dean) in 1964, 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 hangs ten.

Stillman, a sometime surfer, didn't realize Gidget was a real person until she took a job writing for the 1980s TV series, "The New Gidget." As surf culture became more heavily commercialized in the mid-'80s, Stillman discovered the original "Gidget" book was out of print and campaigned for its re-release. In June 2001, the novel again hit bookstores, with an introduction by Stillman. "The real Gidget is a cultural treasure, and the book is like a message in a bottle," she says.

The museum is located at 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. For information about the discussion and the exhibit, which runs through Oct. 6, call (949) 494-6531.

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