Gidget and the Growth of Surfing

Gidget was arguably the first Hollywood feature film concerned with surfing

By Warren Miller

In 1949, Frederick Kohner, his wife and young daughter named Kathy, signed up for my beginner ski school class in Sun Valley on Dollar Mountain. This was their first ski vacation since Frederick and his wife escaped the German invasion of Austria during World War II.

The second day at lunch I spun some stories about surfing at Malibu, which was only 10 or 12 miles from where they lived.

When they got home, they packed a picnic lunch, parked their car at the surfing beach at Malibu, and before they knew it, Kathy loved surfing so much that the parents were soon just dropping Kathy off in the morning and picking her up in the afternoon.

Kathy was able to borrow a small surfboard and learned how to ride it. Because of her small size the local surfers quickly named her Gidget.

Kathy’s father wrote a book about his daughter and had a great agent who quickly sold the story called Gidget to a major Hollywood film company. Soon an entire staff was hired to produce it and I even got a phone call from them to participate in the actual production of the movie. My job took two weeks and I took the director to every beach from Tijuana to Ventura so he could make his own evaluation on which beach had the best potential to produce the best movie.

Gidget was arguably the first Hollywood feature film concerned with surfing and beach party music and dancing.

It was interesting to see how Hollywood portrayed surfing to the general public. I thought it was pretty unrealistic after having surfed for a decade and having produced surfing sequences for my first feature-length ski films. The leading man in Gidget was filmed standing on a surfboard in a soundstage

Last week a copy of the book Gidget personally autographed by Frederick Kohner was returned to me by an old friend and it’s amazing to me how much has happened in my life since Gidget rode a surfboard at Malibu.

Mr. and Mrs. Kohner certainly pointed Gidget in a proper direction because over years 25 years later, when Gidget was still making turns on Baldy at Sun Valley every winter, she was still signing autographs.

There certainly were unanticipated consequences when I told the Kohner family about surfing at Malibu. And after a couple summers a crowded day at Malibu jumped from a half-dozen surfers to where you could hardly find a place to park your car within walking distance of the surfing beach. At about the same time Bob Simmons, who lived in Pasadena, started creating lightweight surfboards in his mother’s garage. Bob had a bad elbow and had trouble paddling a heavy surfboard. To the best of my knowledge, he was the first person to experiment with lightweight foam and fiberglass that fueled the surfing revolution. For several years Bob was the only person making light boards and the wait to get a surfboard from Bob pompted several other young people to start making the same product, the most famous and successful of those was Hobie Alter.

I am lucky enough to be one of the people who knew what it was like to surf Malibu when I was the only person there.

I had to slide my surfboard through a small hole in the eight-foot high wire fence and hope that it had not been wired shut while I was enjoying the crystal clear water that the ocean used to be. Today when the surf is good there will be several hundred surfboards on the beach and in the water.

Much of its popularity can of course be blamed on Gidget and the following surfing culture, which grew over those early years.

Maybe even a little bit of it from my conversation with her father at Sun Valley in the spring of 1949.

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