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Wednesday, April 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Still surfing: the real Gidget

By Aline Mendelsohn
The Orlando Sentinel

Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, 63, is Gidget, the real girl whose story inspired a book, TV show and movie. She signed books about her surfing life and talked with fans in Cocoa Beach, Fla., in March.
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COCOA BEACH, Fla. — At Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach, amid the buzz from fans waiting for the "real Gidget" to autograph their "Gidget" books, a girl of about 6 has a simple question.

She faces the honey-haired woman sitting on a makeshift stage and asks innocently, "Are you a surfer?"

Kathy Kohner Zuckerman stops signing in midsentence and peers at the girl through thick-framed glasses.

"She asked if I'm a surfer," Zuckerman repeats loudly. Then she smiles at the child and answers, "I am the legend. I was the first girl surfer."

Zuckerman still seems girlish, even though she is 63 and a grandmother of two. Through the years, she has kept the joyful gleam in her eyes, the wide, easy smile and the dreamy manner of speech, sprinkled with phrases such as "always and forever."

Before Sandra Dee and Sally Field personified the role in movies and television, Zuckerman was Gidget, a tiny teenager who braved the waves and refused to let any boy tell her what she could or couldn't do.

"I wish I could go back in time," Zuckerman says wistfully.

But the summers of her girlhood still live in her mind as something clean and pure, the endless summer.

"It's a moment in time that seems to have lasted always and forever," she says.

It was the summer of 1956. Zuckerman — then Kathy Kohner — was 15 and barely 5 feet tall — small in size, but not spirit.

An original California girl, she spent her days at Malibu Beach, where the girls primped and sunned themselves while the boys rode the waves. But Zuckerman didn't want to just watch. The teenager grabbed a board and joined the boys — men, really, because most were five or six years older than she was.

The guys saw her as a little girl and at first brushed her off. Zuckerman responded, "I'm going to be here whether you like it or not."

She brought them peanut-butter-and-radish sandwiches, which they scarfed down. In return, they teased her and buried her surfboard in the sand.

They also helped her learn to surf and nicknamed her Gidget, for "girl midget."

"She was awfully cute, a perky little gal," says Genie Seagrave-Smith, who met Zuckerman on the beach in the '50s.

Seagrave-Smith also remembers her as "a pain in the butt to the rest of us who were so much older. She wanted to fit in so badly, in a desperate way."

That summer, Zuckerman grew up, in so many ways.

She fell in love with Bill Jensen. The surfer was five years older, and he sure did like her a lot, but in the way you like a little sister, not a girlfriend.

Zuckerman spent some days that summer nursing a broken heart.

She also fell in love with surfing and would later realize that her true love was catching a wave.

One day, she gushed in her journal: "Dear Diary, The Bu (Malibu) gets good once a summer and it got good ... Brother, was I ever jazzed. Brother was I ever stoked."

Zuckerman wanted to write a story about surfing. Screenwriter Frederick Kohner, her father, decided to write a fictional account of her adventures. In the book, a girl named Gidget falls for a surfer named Moondoggie, modeled after Bill Jensen.

"Gidget" rose to No. 7 on the 1957 best-seller list, ahead of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," and it spawned a hit movie starring Sandra Dee.

"It really launched the sport of surfing into the mass consciousness," says Brian Gillogly, who is working on a documentary titled "In the Sun: The Real Gidget Story." "She was the spark, a lot of people say for better or for worse."

"The so-called lifestyle took off," recalls Bill Jensen. "Everyone wanted to be a blond-haired, blue-eyed surfer type."

Attention brought change

Some surfers resented the Gidget phenomenon because it unleashed a torrent of wannabes who invaded their subculture.

Kathy Kohner Zuckerman's father, screenwriter Frederick Kohner, decided to write a fictional account of his daughter's surfing adventures. "Gidget" rose to No. 7 on the 1957 best-seller list.
Within a few years after that magical summer, things didn't feel the same. Beaches across Southern California became crowded, and the surf party scene emerged.

Zuckerman's surfer boys had joined the Army, and the notion of a girl surfer had lost its novelty: "Now every little girl was bebopping around," Zuckerman says.

Malibu had changed, and so had she. So she quit surfing.

Always and forever? Maybe not.

Zuckerman went to college at Oregon State University, where she majored in physical education.

She fell in love a few more times — "I was always falling in love," she says — and after graduation, married and had two children. She worked as a substitute teacher, a travel agent and a restaurant hostess.

She never missed the surfing.

Then, in the early '90s, Zuckerman was asked to take part in a cancer fund-raiser that involved surfing legends.

She hadn't been on a surfboard for more than 30 years, but for the cause, she decided to overcome her fear. And as she rode the waves again, Zuckerman screamed in exhilaration, her girlhood memories came flooding back, and she remembered why she loved the surf.

Today, Zuckerman surfs every so often. She still keeps in touch with members of the old crew, including the real-life Moondoggie, her former crush Jensen ("We get a big chuckle out of it," he says). She stays plugged into the scene by working as a hostess at the surf-themed Duke's Malibu Restaurant, where everyone calls her "Gidget."

Zuckerman also gives speeches around the country. Many fans don't realize that Gidget was a real person.

"They forget that there was a young woman who looked out at the ocean and thought, 'That could be me,' " says Sam George, editor of Surfer Magazine. The publication honored Zuckerman as the seventh most influential surfer of all time.

"Gidget created that whole California myth that represents freedom and romance and enduring youth in our culture," George says.

"This is amazing," Zuckerman says, looking around the 52,000 square feet of the Ron Jon Surf Shop.

In her day, surfers had no wet suits or ankle leashes, just their boards and the waves.

Book re-released

She autographs the newest version of "Gidget" — re-released in 2001 with a foreword by Zuckerman — with breezy inscriptions such as "Go hang ten." "Keep surfing the dream." "May all your waves bring you home."

A variety of fascinated fans come through the line.

There's Bruce Bennett of Indian Harbour Beach, Fla. — he collects surfboards and surfing memorabilia. His daughter goes by her legal middle name, Gidget.

Cocoa Beach Surfing School owner Craig Carroll tells Zuckerman he gives his girl students Gidget Graduate diplomas at the end of the course. (If they don't know who Gidget is, Carroll tells them to ask their moms.)

Kathy Gardner of Cocoa approaches Zuckerman's table clutching a yellowed, well-worn 1961 edition of "Gidget" that cost 35 cents.

"This inspired me," Gardner tells Zuckerman. Gardner is a petite, white-haired woman who wears a gold surfer-girl pendant. She used to surf every day until multiple sclerosis took over last year.

"This is amazing," Zuckerman says, looking at the book. "That means a lot to me, that you have this."

She hesitates to autograph it, fearing the pages will crumble at her touch, but Gardner insists.

Zuckerman opens the book to the title page and writes, "Kathy, Always follow your dreams. I did."


Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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