First female Malibu surfer is real-life Gidget

Andrew Fingerett

It all began in Malibu in the summer of 1956, when Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman tried desperately to become ‘just one of the guys’ at a time when she was one of only three female Malibu surfers.

‘This is the beginning of the billion dollar surf industry,’ said Kohner-Zuckerman, 67, speaking of her childhood surfing experiences that formed the foundation for the novel ‘Gidget’ at an event at the University Club.

‘ The Friends of the Oviatt Library presented the event Wednesday, Sept. 24 afternoon after a buffet luncheon.

Kohner-Zuckerman, a CSUN alum who started surfing at the age of 15, inspired her father, Frederick Kohner, to write a novel that eventually spawned seven sequels, three movie adaptations and a television sitcom starring Sally Field.

She charmed her way into the group of surfers by handing out peanut butter and radish sandwiches, eventually earning the nickname Gidget from a fellow surfer who said, ‘Well, you’re a girl, you’re a midget, you’re Gidget.’

The Gidget phenomenon turned the modest surfing sub-culture of the 1950s into a highly commercialized, intensely popular pastime. And most people didn’t even realize Gidget was a real person.

Kohner-Zuckerman said she remembers thinking, ‘How stupid is this, they’re actually making a movie about my life at Malibu,’ referring to the first ‘Gidget’ film released in 1959 and starring Sandra Dee.

But the Gidget franchise wasn’t simply a pop-culture phenomenon, or a boom to the surfing industry. It helped break down traditional gender roles popular coming-of-age story with a female protagonist.

‘So many books are centered around a male, what if we read a book about a heroine?’ asked Tina Love, an English professor. ‘You’ve got a female changing the landscape,’ she said, referring to the advent of surf shops and the Beach Boys. ‘She started it all,’ said Love, ‘One woman started it all.’

Kohner-Zuckerman graduated from CSUN in 1964, earning a degree in English and obtaining lifetime teaching credentials. She worked as a substitute teacher for English and social studies at high schools around the San Fernando Valley. She also worked as a travel agent because, said Kohner-Zuckerman, ‘Gidget became a travel agent in the show, ‘The New Gidget’.’

Rian Medlin, a political science graduate student, said she has been a fan of the Gidget franchise since the age of six.

‘It was something me and my mom could do together,’ she said. She added that the story is not only fun, but also has a great message.

‘Being a young girl and being able to broach for something that’s not typical for a girl’mdash;you know, something that’s dominated by guys,’ she said.

But Kohner-Zuckerman said she wasn’t even aware of the gender issue. All she wanted to do was surf.

‘I saw, as a 15-year-old, a subculture that was unique, the language was unique, and it was so different from what I experienced at University High School,’ she said.

That subculture has certainly changed over the years. Kohner-Zuckerman said that the reason she probably stopped surfing in 1960 was because of the thousands of new surfers pouring onto the beaches. Today’s surf scene is a far cry from the sleepier, more romantic portrayal of the one that existed half a century ago.

‘We didn’t have surf clubs,’ said Kohner-Zuckerman. ‘We didn’t have the restroom, there was the guy’s shack. There just weren’t a lot of people.’ She also mentioned that today’s surf culture has more territorialism than in the past, but more than that has changed.

‘It is now a woman’s sport,’ she said. ‘It was not a woman’s sport in the 50s.’

Today, Kohner-Zuckerman works as a hostess at Duke’s Malibu restaurant.