Gidget’s Origins

By Beacon Staff

A casual conversation can later have a lot of unanticipated consequences. In 1949 when I was teaching skiing in Sun Valley on Dollar Mountain, noted playwright and author Frederick Kohner, his wife, and 8-year-old daughter Kathy were in my ski school class. Frederick and his wife skied in Austria before escaping from Hitler’s wrath in World War II. This was their first ski trip in America, and we had a great time reacquainting Frederick and his wife with skiing and getting their daughter heading downhill properly.

We became friends as well and ate several lunches and a dinner or two together. We talked about what I did during the summer, and most of the conversation was about surfing at Malibu and San Onofre. By that time, I had shot a lot of 8mm movies of surfing and told them of wanting to someday make travel lecture ski films.

I don’t know how long after those discussions before Frederick took his daughter to Malibu, but whenever it was she got hooked on surfing. She was not even a teenager when she first appeared on the beach with her parents, lunch, bathing suit and towel. She was not very tall, and in those days everyone who could surf at all had to have a nickname: Kathy’s became a mixture of “girl” and “midget” – hence the name that is still hers today, Gidget. She quickly became a mascot of some of the old timers. Her father or mother would drop her off at Malibu in the morning and pick her up in the late afternoon. Gidget’s surfing career and notoriety became the unintended consequence of telling surfing stories to the Kohner family to think about the beach as a place of freedom not unlike a ski hill, only a lot warmer. In about 1954 or 1955, Frederick finished writing his book “Gidget.” We had stayed friends over the years when I invited him to my previews in the fall and had the occasional dinner at their home.

In 1956 or 1957, I got a surprise phone call from the film studios. They were producing a feature film called “Gidget.” They needed some help understanding surf culture and finding a good place to shoot the movie. I spent two weeks driving the producer up and down the coast from Ventura to San Diego so he could look at all of the potential beaches. I charged them twice my carpenter’s wages per day and was happy for the 10 days of income in July. When they finally got around to shooting, they hired someone else to stand around all day and tell them that he thought the surf might be up within two weeks, give or take a week or two. That was fine with me because I was already over my head commuting to Hollywood and working on my own ski movie for release in October.

I remained good friends with the Kohner family and see the original Gidget, Kathy Kohner (now Zuckerman), occasionally when I go skiing at Sun Valley. Kathy’s father sold the film rights for a very high price in those days of $50,000. He was generous enough to give his daughter 5 percent of the original sale price. That was a lot of money for a girl in her late teens, in 1959. By the time Gidget hit the screen a year later, I was so busy working on my own movies that I never had time to go and watch it in the local theater.