“It was my father’s success”: An interview with the real “Gidget”

 Comet Over Hollywood has reviewed the three “Gidget” feature films this summer. To wrap up the series, Comet interviewed Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, the real Gidget whose summer story inspired her screenwriter father to write a book. The conversation was delightful. Ms. Zuckerman was down-to-Earth and it felt like talking and laughing with an old friend. 

(r) Kathy Kohner in 1957 in the photo that was used on the book cover. (L) Kohner Zuckerman pictured in 2014 at Duke's, where she works.

(r) Kathy Kohner in 1957 in the photo that was used on the book cover. (L) Kohner Zuckerman pictured in 2014 at Duke’s, where she works.

It was a different world for Kathy Kohner as she walked on the film set of “Gidget” in 1959.

“It was hard to understand that they were making a movie about me,” said Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, the real “Gidget,” in a phone interview with Comet Over Hollywood on Tuesday, Aug. 25. “They weren’t even filming at Malibu.”

The 1959 “Gidget” film that starred Sandra Dee, James Darren and Cliff Robertson spawned two more feature films, two television shows and several made-for-TV movies. And it all began with a 15-year-old girl telling her father that she wanted to write a story about her summer.

Kathy had been spending her summer days in 1957 at Malibu around a group of kids that were different than your average teenager. The boys surfed all day, lived in a shack on the beach, and nicknamed petite Kathy, “Gidget”- meaning “girl midget.”

Screenwriter Frederick Kohner with his daughter Kathy, who served as inspiration for Gidget.

Screenwriter Frederick Kohner with his daughter Kathy, who served as inspiration for Gidget.

“I can close my eyes and remember turning in the passenger seat of the car and telling my dad that I wanted to write a story about my days at the beach. I told him, ‘There is a guy who lives in a shack,’” Zuckerman said. “Dad said, ‘Well you aren’t a writer, but I know you keep diaries, and I’ll write the story. Sounds like fun.’ I told my dad pretty much everything; I had a very good relationship with him. I still have those diary pages.”

Kathy’s father was Hollywood screenwriter Frederick Kohner, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his screen play “Mad About Music” (1938) starring Deanna Durbin, Herbert Marshall and Gail Patrick. Kohner’s Hollywood credits also include Durbin films “It’s a Date” (1940), “Nice Girl?” (1941), “The Men in Her Life” (1941) starring Loretta Young, the Claudette Colbert and Robert Young film “Bride for Sale” (1949) and “Never Wave at a WAC” (1953) starring Rosalind Russell.

Kohner was born in Austria-Hungary, where he was already a writer with film screen credits before coming to the United States. He left Europe when Nazis started removing Jewish screen credits from films. His brother, Hollywood agent Paul Kohner, helped Kohner come to the United States, along with their other brother Walter. Paul Kohner is the grandfather of directors Chris and Paul Weitz and father to actress Susan Kohner, star of “Imitation of Life” (1959).

“My dad was pretty much always at home, but he had an area in back of the house that he called the studio. It was an enclave set apart where he wrote,” she said. “He wrote the screenplay for the film “Never Wave at a WAC,” and I got to meet Rosalind Russell. I was probably 17, and she had a big fancy house with her husband. It was fun and I was amazed by her home.”

Kathy’s summer adventures were weaved into the fictional story titled “Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas” about a young girl who felt like she fit in best with the surfers and had a romance with a surfer named, Moondoggie. In the book, the character’s real name is Franzie, which was the name of his wife.

The 1957 cover for "Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas," featuring Kathy. The book is still available on Amazon.

The 1957 cover for “Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas,” featuring Kathy. The book is still available on Amazon.

The book is based on some truths, but a good bit was fictional. For example, Kathy had a crush on a surfer but they never dated, as suggested in the film series.

“There was someone who lived in a shack, I did have a big crush on one of the surfers, I did buy a board with a totem pole on it, I did learn how to surf, I did get tonsillitis a lot, I did bring food to the beach for the guys, I did try very hard to be liked,” she said. “But as for the big crush, I don’t know whether it was reciprocated or not. I think sometimes he did like me and other times he thought I was a kid sister. There was no big romance, but I was definitely charged on Bill. That was his name.”

When the book hit the shelves, it was an immediate best-seller, but Kathy does not claim that success.

“It was my dad’s success. There was a definite ‘Wow’ moment because of the response,” Kathy said. “I think I also thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I wonder what the guys are going to think about the book.’ There was some exposé in it, but in retrospect, I’m sure they loved it, and it created the billion dollar surf industry.”

Kathy was in college in Oregon when the film starring Sandra Dee was released, but she had the opportunity to meet the stars. She remembers Dee as being sweet and considers her the best of the Gidget actresses. In comparison, Dee’s Gidget was sweet, demure and kind while Kathy said she was more of a tomboy.

“It’s odd being that person and watching the films about what Gidget does,” she said. “Sandra Dee is Gidget. There’s me, the real person, but she was great as the character. In the Sally Field TV show- that wasn’t my life. She got involved in high school and the band and journalism. As cute as it was, that wasn’t me. I wanted to be one of the gang or one of the guys. I didn’t like high school. I wanted to be in Malibu.”

With the “Gidget” film came beach music, a mass interest in surfing and more beach films, such as the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello movies.

“Everyone wanted to surf and go to Malibu and fall in love,” she said. “My dad was talented and wrote a really cool book. A studio saw that it would be a good movie and it was. They cast Sandra Dee and Jimmy Daren, who were great, and it cascaded. It was being at the right place at the right time. I was a kid and I was going away to college. I didn’t think of the business end of surfing with the contest and the clothes. There was no surf music yet, we had ‘Rock Around the Clock’ and Elvis Presley. Surf music didn’t come until 1961.”

16-year-old Kathy in the Oct. 28, 1957, issue of LIFE magazine. (LIFE)

16-year-old Kathy in the Oct. 28, 1957, issue of LIFE magazine. (LIFE)

Now, at age 74, Kathy works at a restaurant in Malibu called Duke’s, named for surfer Duke Kahanamoku, where everyone still calls her Gidget, and she is able to promote her book. Kathy still keeps in contact with some of her surfer friends, who she calls “life-long friends.”

“I do keep in contact with some of the boys who surfed in Malibu. They are scattered all over and some aren’t alive anymore,” she said. “I definitely made life-long friends with them. Recently, one of the Malibu surfers came to see me, and I have known him since he’s 19. I told my husband that aside from my family, I have known him the longest.”

She hasn’t surfed in a few summers, but the spirit still lives on in her daily life.

“I like the fact that this character had tenacity. Whether Gidget surfed because of boys, her parents wouldn’t let her go to the movies, or she had nothing better to do, the story was kind of ballsy,” she said. “I wanted to surf, and I wanted to learn even if it meant dealing with teasing or not always being greeted with open arms. A large element of the Gidget story is having the attitude to pursue what you want.”

You can buy the book “Gidget” by Frederick Kohner on Amazon

Another photo of Kathy from the Oct. 28, 1957, LIFE magazine.

Another photo of Kathy from the Oct. 28, 1957, LIFE magazine.

Read more about the three Gidget feature films: 

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7 thoughts on ““It was my father’s success”: An interview with the real “Gidget”

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