It wasn’t common for women to surf in the 1950s, but that didn’t stop Kathy Kohner Zuckerman. A teenager at the time, Zuckerman learned how to surf and documented her experience in a diary, which went on to become the inspiration behind the “Gidget” phenomena. Her father, Frederick Kohner, wrote the very successful 1957 novel “Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas.” In 1959, Columbia Pictures released the movie “Gidget,” starring Sandra Dee, and in 1965, the “Gidget” television series aired, starring Sally Field. Gidget, which stands for “girl” and “midget,” is commonly recognized as pioneering the surfing industry as it is today.
The Malibu Times got a chance to sit down with the woman who today, at age 74, still likes being called Gidget.
How does it feel to be the inspiration behind such a successful book?
It was my idea for my dad to write the book. But it was my father’s success. He wrote a fabulous book. Which, at the time, was hard to grasp. But it was all my dad’s success.
What drew you to the surf culture?
My parents loved Malibu and they took me to the beach because they didn’t want me to go to a movie on a Saturday afternoon. We loved the beach and always went to Malibu. I saw the surfers and decided to buy a surfboard. I bought my first surfboard for $35. I wanted to have a sense of belonging. It was the sense of community for me. I was very athletic and enjoyed sports so I decided to surf.
The book is titled “Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas.” What would you say have been some of the big ideas in your life?
“Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas” was not part of the original title. I’m not quite sure how that came along. My husband thinks it was a quote from a reviewer. But I would say one of my big ideas was to learn how to surf and for the boys to see me surf. I have my diary pages from that time. I would write down what I did at the beach every day.
How did the name Gidget originate? How do you feel about it being your nickname?
It’s a blend of the words “girl” and “midget.” I loved it at the time. Everybody had nicknames. I thought mine was so cool. It was a sense of community. I’m still called Gidget at Duke’s Malibu, where I work. I like it even at 74 years old.
What is your most memorable “fan” experience?
I’m always totally overwhelmed at the connections. The six degrees of separation. When someone says, “Oh my God, you know that person.” The other day at the bookstore, this lady came up to me and said she was a student of my dad’s when he taught at UCLA. These kinds of threads are so touching and meaningful to me.
You also do a kid’s reading at Bank of Books in Malibu once a month. How did that start and why do you choose to do it?
I read a book called “Surf Angel.” It’s a lot of fun. I love it. I used to work at a bookstore and I love being around books.
You and your husband just celebrated your 50th anniversary. What is the secret to a happy marriage?
You have to sometimes keep your mouth shut. Choose your battles. Grow old along with me; the best is yet to be. Leave little notes in his lunch pail or on his desk. Draw a heart on the bathroom mirror. Be careful not to criticize too much. No one likes that.
You have worked at Dukes Restaurant in Malibu for 14 years. Why do you choose to do that?
It’s as close to the water as I possibly can get. The people are fabulous. They love the Gidget story. It’s a happy place and I want to be in a happy place.
What are some of your hobbies?
I take piano lessons. I take my husband and go for a walk everyday. I like to walk on the beach. I love eating sandwiches at John’s Garden.
What is your favorite thing about Malibu?
How was it having your portrait painted by Johanna Spinks?
I just decided to sit still for one and a half hours, which doesn’t come easy. It was nice. She was very pleasant. I was interested in her personality. I loved her professionalism and punctuality. It was a very positive experience for me.