Palisadian Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, 67, was immortalized in her father’s (Frederick Kohner) 1957 book ‘Gidget, The Little Girl with Big Ideas.’ This semi-autobiographical account of Kohner’s summer on a Malibu beach learning to surf and of experiencing a first love has sold more than three million copies. The book was turned into a popular 1959 movie, which starred Sandra Dee and James Darren and which inspired a television show that starred Sally Field. This simple story became a cultural phenomenon because it brought surfing into the nation’s spotlight while featuring a girl in a predominantly male sport. The 1950s were a time before Title IX and women’s sports, and less than three percent of surfers were women. ‘It wasn’t something that girls did,’ Zuckerman said, who was chosen in a 1999 Surfer magazine 40th Anniversary Collector’s Issue as one of the most influential surfers of all time. She was ranked number seven of the 25 featured and one of only two women selected. On January 9, Kathy spoke at a Palisades AARP meeting about her parents, her life and surfing. ‘I always loved Malibu beach,’ she told the more than 50 people in the audience. Her Czechoslovakian parents were refugees from the Holocaust, and relocated in Brentwood. Even though her father didn’t swim, he took the family to the beach because a doctor relative had told him that it was healthy. ‘I got bored sitting on the sand,’ Kathy said. The 15-year-old wandered over to watch the surfers and her two interests blended, surfers and boys–in particular a boy named Bill Jensen, who became immortalized in the book and film as Gidget’s love interest Moondoggie. In order to be accepted by influential surfers such as Miki Dora, Mickey Mu’oz, Dewey Weber, Tom Morey, Nat Young, Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy and Jensen, Kathy decided to learn to surf. The men were amused by the 5’1′ teenager, and one of the surfers nicknamed her ‘Gidget,’ a combination of girl and midget. In 1956, Kathy went out on a surfboard for the first time. Her diary entry for the day read: ‘I didn’t do too much but go to the beach. I didn’t think I’d have fun but I met Matt [Kivlin] and he took me out on his surfboard. He let me catch the waves by myself and once I fell off and the board went flying in the air. I didn’t get hurt at all. . .I hope Matt will take me surfing again.’ She paid $30 for her first board, which was 8′ feet long and weighed 22 pounds. The teenager confided to her father that she wished she could write a story about the beach. ‘My dad said, ‘Tell me everything and I’ll write it for you.” Kohner was a screenwriter in Hollywood. In 1939, he was nominated for best writing original story in ‘Mad About Music,’ in which a young woman at a boarding school in Switzerland writes herself letters from an imaginary explorer-adventurer father. His credits include numerous stories such as ‘Bride for Sale,’ ‘The Men in Her Life,’ and ‘Three Daring Daughters’ that were made into films starring some of the greatest leading ladies of the day, including Loretta Young, Jeanette MacDonald and Rosalind Russell. His style of writing about spunky women was perfectly suited for ‘Gidget,’ and the book became a national bestseller, reaching seventh on the chart, above Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road.’ Not all reviewers applauded his work. A Nebraska reviewer called it ‘A vulgar little book about a nice little girl who tries to be hard.’ The reviewer ended by saying that he didn’t like the language and suggesting that the young woman be spanked. Whether it was his style or a truthfulness that spoke to young women, Kohner gained a large audience. ‘Hundreds and hundreds of young girls wrote my dad letters,’ Kathy said. He kept them and when he and his wife passed away in 2001, Kathy and her sister inherited the rights to Gidget as well as the letters. In 2001, Zuckerman brought out a new edition of the book, which contains beach photos of her from the 1950s, a foreword and introduction by writer/playwright Deanne Stillman. In the story ‘Surfing Sunset & Vine: Tales of Gidget and Other Short Subjects,’ documentary filmmaker Brian Gillogly became fascinated by Zuckerman. As he got to know her, the story took on several dimensions and he decided to shoot a documentary about her. ‘Surfing exploded after the ‘Gidget’ movie came out,’ he said. ‘Surfer lingo was introduced to the nation’s culture. It was interesting to watch how the icon spread from Kathy and affected the country.’ Gillogly was also fascinated by the degree to which Gidget became a liberating force for women: she was dubbed a proto-feminist because she was participating in a male sport before the feminist scene exploded around the country. ‘We have all these inspirational stories from women on the film and it’s all because of Gidget [Kohner],’ he said. The documentary was only screened once at the Malibu Film Festival in 2006, where it received a standing ovation and rave reviews. Sony Pictures allowed Gillogly to pay a film festival fee for that showing, but in order to receive licensing to continue to screen the one-hour documentary, he must pay a $50,000. ‘For a major network that would be nothing,’ Gillogly said. ‘For us that’s a deal breaker.’ He has had queries from all over the world about showing the documentary, but so far Sony has not budged. The film is being reviewed by the Stanford Fair Use Project, which helps documentaries to legally use copyrighted clips. When the ‘Gidget’ book was reissued in 2001, Zuckerman hit the road to promote it. She was featured in newspapers around the country, including the New York Times, the Boston Herald, and the Chicago Tribune. Magazine stories and television appearances followed. Zuckerman has appeared on the ‘CBS Morning Show’ and Australia’s ‘Today Show,’ as well as on National Public Radio. Zuckerman has told her story to audiences and schools around the country. She recently found out that she will be inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame on January 27. She left Malibu in 1960 to attend Oregon College. In 1965, she met her husband of 45 years, Marvin Zuckerman. The couple have two sons: David, a freelance magazine writer and independent film producer, and Phil, a sociology professor at Pitzer College. The Zuckerman’s have three grandchildren: Ruby, Flora and August. After taking a 40-year break from surfing, Kathy is in the water again. ‘It’s like a bike: once you learn it, you can do it,’ she said. Zuckerman belongs to the Surfers Club in Malibu and hits the waves once a week. She told the audience, ‘It was a good place for me to spend my youth.’ If Kathy’s trim figure and bubbly enthusiasm are any indication of the benefits of surfing, it sounds as if the Pacific Ocean is still a good place to spend time.
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