Review: Gidget TV series (1965-1966)

Until a few weeks ago, I never had watched an episode of the TV version of “Gidget” (1965-66) starring Sally Field. But as I kicked off my third summer of surfing through the “Gidget” franchise, I bought the series and took the plunge—and then I binge watched all 32 episodes for two weeks until I finished.

As I have mentioned before, my favorite Gidget in the films is Sandra Dee, who originated the role. At second place was Karen Valentine, who played Gidget in a TV film “Gidget Grows Up” (1969). However, I have to admit that Sally Field may nudge Valentine from that spot.

Frances “Gidget” Lawrence’s life story undergoes several adjustments throughout the duration of the Gidget series (1959-1986). In 1959, we start off with a shy, smart, innocent only child of two parents. Once she finds love in Hawaii (1961) and Rome (1963), Gidget gets less naïve and more precocious.

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Review: Gidget’s Summer Reunion (1985) TV Movie

From 1959 to 1986, there were nine versions of “Gidget” on TV and film, live action and animated.

I’ve refrained from calling versions made from 1959 to 1972 “the worst” of the Gidget series, because they aren’t.

“Gidget Goes Hawaiian” isn’t great but it has some bright spots and is colorful. “Gidget Goes to Rome” is a little too syrupy sweet, and “Gidget Gets Married” was just goofy.

gidgetBut the worst came in 1985 with the two hour made-for-TV movie “Gidget’s Summer Reunion.”

Gidget (Caryn Richman) and Moondoggie/Jeff (Dean Butler) are married, living in a house they can’t afford and working paycheck to paycheck. Gidget runs a travel agency and Jeff works as a contractor and has a sexy blond boss, Anne (Mary Frann). Their 15-year-old niece Kim (Allison Barron) comes to stay the summer and is ready to learn how to surf and gets tangled with a college-aged surfing jerk (Vincent Van Patten) who only has one thing on his mind.

Gidget is so busy at work that her marriage is falling apart and Anne is reaching out her claws for Jeff. Just as Gidget attempts to patch up her married and is planning a surprise birthday party for Jeff with the old surfing gang, she has to take over on a tour of Hawaii when her tour guide gets sick.

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Review: Gidget Gets Married (1972) TV movie

Gidget and Moondoggie’s romance started onscreen in 1959 on the beaches of Malibu.
Though the real Gidget didn’t marry “Moondoggie,” the fictional one tied the knot in a 1972 TV movie, “Gidget Gets Married.”

At the end of the TV movie “Gidget Grows Up” (1969), Gidget and Jeff get engaged. Two years later, Gidget (Monie Ellis) has left her job at the United Nations and is now working as a first grade teacher. Jeff “Moondoggie” Stevens (Michael Burns) returns home from the Air Force and is ready to get married immediately.

Jeff/Moondoggie (Michael Burns) and Gidget (Monie Ellis)

Jeff/Moondoggie (Michael Burns) and Gidget (Monie Ellis)

The two go to Gidget’s dad (Macdonald Carey) who is wary of such a quick wedding but relents when he hears Jeff has an engineering job lined up. Former child star and Gidget’s old landlord Louis B. Latimer (Paul Lynde) attends the wedding and brings his movie cameras to capture the moment.

The movie is less about the wedding and more about the newlyweds adjusting to married life, new jobs and communities.

They move to Florida for Jeff’s job at Worldwide Dynamics. Their home is located in a company owned community and furniture is provided by Worldwide Dynamics, which doesn’t sit well with Gidget, because she can’t decorate her first home. Jets also fly over Gidget’s neighborhood. Worldwide Dynamics is separated into three communities based on status within the company and the neighborhoods aren’t supposed to fraternize.

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Review: Gidget Grows Up (1969) TV movie

The world was changing in the late-1960s.

The anti-authority, anti-capitalism, anti-war and free-love movements brought a shift in popular culture.

The surf culture that erupted after Fredrick Kohner’s book “Gidget” hit the shelves was starting to fade with dissatisfaction of establishment. This caused a shift in pop culture, and films and music focused more on social movements and issues rather than wanting to hold hands or surf the USA. There no longer was a place for Technicolor fluff films focusing on beach parties, surfing and wahinis in wild bikinis.

So how does Frances “Gidget” Lawrence, the surfing “girl midget” who first appeared in 1957, fit in a changing world?

She goes to work at the United Nations.

Gidget (Karen Valentine) and her friends Diana (Susan Batson) and Minnie (Helen Funai) become United Nations guides. (Comet Over Hollywood screencap)

Gidget (Karen Valentine) and her friends Diana (Susan Batson) and Minnie (Helen Funai) become United Nations guides. (Comet Over Hollywood screencap)

After three feature “Gidget” films and a 1965 television show that lasted one season, the 1969 television film “Gidget Grows Up” places Gidget in New York City. She’s ready to change the world at the United Nations (UN), which she describes as “one of humanity’s noblest achievements.”

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“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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Reviews: Gidget Goes to Rome (1963)

Gidget_Goes_to_Rome_1963_posterGidget Goes to Rome” isn’t the best of the three Gidget feature films, but it isn’t the worst.

While Sandra Dee is the best actress who plays Gidget, Cindy Carol is a distance second.

In this film, we join Gidget and her friends for a third summer. Gidget (Carol) is about to go off to college and is planning a trip to Rome, Italy with her friends—Lucy (Noreen Corcoran) and Libby (Trudi Ames). She’s trying to convince her boyfriend Moondoggie/Jeff (James Darren) and his buddies—Judge (Joby Baker) and Clay (Peter Brooks)—to come along. But before they can head abroad, Gidget’s parents need some convincing. They will only let Gidget go if she has a chaperon. Judge enlists his rich, eccentric Aunt Albertina (Jessie Royce Landis). Without her knowledge, Gidget’s father (Don Porter) writes to an old friend he met in Italy during World War II, Paolo Cellini (Cesare Danova).

When the group arrives in Italy, Gidget is ready to have a romantic trip with Jeff while they explore the Eternal City. But Jeff abandons her and falls for their pretty tour guide, Daniela (Danielle De Metz). While Gidget is hurt, Paolo enters the picture to stealthily watch after Gidget; saying he wants to write a magazine article about a young American exploring Italy. She develops a crush and leaves her friends to explore the people of Rome with Paolo.

Gidget and Jeff/Moondoggie while they are still in love in Rome.

Gidget and Jeff/Moondoggie while they are still in love in Rome.

If you are looking for a beach film, “Gidget Goes to Rome” isn’t for you. The film starts with an obligatory scene of Gidget on the beach carrying a surf board. That maybe lasts five minutes before launching into an Italian adventure. Shot on location in Rome, the Technicolor scenery is gorgeous, colorful and travelogue-esque.

James Darren is smitten with Daniela the travel guide.

James Darren is smitten with Daniela the travel guide.

Cindy Carol as Gidget is no Sandra Dee, but she is better than most of the actresses that tried their hand at the role. Carol is admittedly syrupy sweet and squealy, but she has more of a Gidget personality than Deborah Walley had in “Gidget Goes Hawaiian.” In the 1959 film, Gidget is painted as a straight-A, intelligent, Tom boy who finally finds her place on the beach. Walley’s Gidget was written as man crazy and impulsive, which wasn’t accurate. But Carol brings back the intelligence of Gidget, as she spouts off facts about Italy and quotes authors.

Gidget even says to her friends, “We are not here for the sole purpose of looking at men,” which seems more along the lines of the 1959 Gidget who wasn’t interested in man-hunts.

The only beach scene in the film.

The only beach scene in the film.

Cindy Carol was cast because Walley was pregnant. The film’s credits say “introducing Cindy Carol” but this was actually one of her last film roles; with her career ending in 1965. Prior to this film she had acted on the “New Loretta Young Show,” “Leave It To Beaver” and a bit part in “Cape Fear (1962).”

James Darren and Joby Baker are the only two actors who appeared in all three of the feature-film. Jessie Royce Landis is my favorite actor in the film whose role had the wittiest lines in the funniest scenes.

When Landis first meets Gidget, she immediately says, “Oh God, you’ll be the sweet one.”

While “Gidget Goes to Rome” ranks second for me in the three Gidget feature films, the plot still bugs me. I hate the kind of plot where a couple goes on a trip together, one of the partners immediately falls in love with new person and then the couple is together again by the end of the film. That irks me to no end.

Gidget and Paolo.

Gidget and Paolo.

Another silly aspect of this film is Gidget’s daydreams. If you remember in “Gidget Goes Hawaiian,” Gidget has odd daydreams about being a loose woman and then of being a stripper. In “Gidget Goes to Rome,” Gidget imagines that she’s Cleopatra and another daydream as a Christian martyr in the gladiator ring as Daniela, Judge and Jeff watched.

The Sept. 12, 1963, New York Times Bosely Crowther review was brief and neither praised nor criticized “Gidget Goes to Rome.” Crowther noted, Carol played Gidget with “proper pout and correct ingenuousness.”

“As one of Gidget’s friends explains, it’s part of her ‘growing up.’ Gidget falls out of love in time…and all ends happily. Jeff sums up the entire experience in two immortal sentences: ‘I guess everybody falls in love in Rome in the summer time. It’s that old devil Italian moon.’”

“Gidget Goes to Rome” sums the whole experience as “part of growing up.” While the feature film portion of the Gidget series ends with this movie, the television aspect began two year later and continued for 20 years.

To read our reviews of the other two films:

Gidget (1959)

Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961)

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Review: “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” (1961)

gidget-goes-hawaiian-movie-poster-1961-1010681749I almost stopped this movie after watching for 20 minutes.

Gidget Goes Hawaiian” (1961) is the worst of the Gidget series. Even the 1969 made-for-TV film, “Gidget Grows Up” starring Karen Valentine, is better.

The success of the 1959 “Gidget” film was followed by two feature films, three made-for-TV movies and two television shows.

As previously mentioned, I adore the film “Gidget” (1959) that spawned a beach culture craze. However, the film that followed two years later is abysmal.

In the film, Moondoggie/Jeff Matthews (James Darren) returns from college. He and Gidget spend a carefree summer together, and Moondoggie gives Gidget his fraternity pin. All is bliss until Gidget’s parents (Jeff Donnell, Carl Reiner) surprise her with a trip to Hawaii. Rather than being overjoyed, Gidget is outraged, because she will have to leave Moondoggie, who only has two weeks of summer vacation left. In a tizzy, she runs to tell him the bad news. Rather than being angry with her, Moondoggie is happy that she has the opportunity to go on this trip. Naturally Gidget assumes that this means he doesn’t love her, so she flies off the handle, gives him back his fraternity pin and decides she wants to go to Hawaii.

On the flight to Hawaii, Gidget meets Abby Stewart (Vicki Trickett) who is spoiled and boy crazy. Also on their flight is popular TV dancer Eddie Horner (Michael Callan), who Abby immediately sets her sights on, but Eddie is more interested in Gidget. Once in Hawaii, Gidget mopes around and misses Moondoggie. To cheer her up, Dad invites Moondoggie to Hawaii so the two can patch up their relationship. But when Moondoggie arrives, he finds Gidget with Eddie. Filled with anger, Moondoggie sets out to have a good time with Abby and the two work to make the other jealous. Abby is also jealous of all the male attention Gidget is receiving and starts a rumor that she is a loose woman and sleeps around.

Moondoggie (Darren) catches Eddie (Callan) and Gidget (Walley) together.

Moondoggie (Darren) catches Eddie (Callan) and Gidget (Walley) together.

The whole purpose of the original story of “Gidget” is the fact that she is a petite girl who surfed. There are two surfing scenes in the movie, but surfing is not the focus here. While the 1959 film is a splash of Malibu color, the cinematographer and director did not take advantage of the lush Hawaiian scenery while shooting on location.

The issue with “Gidget Goes Hawiian” boils down to this is the casting of Gidget.

Deborah Walley simply is no Gidget. She is whiney, shrill, squealy and honestly isn’t cute. Of the actresses that played Gidget (Sandra Dee, Cindy Carol, Sally Field, Karen Valentine, Monie Ellis, Kathy Gori, Caryn Richman), Walley is probably the worst.

Walley has a jazzy moment on the dance floor with Michael Callan—the original Riff in the Broadway version of “West Side Story—and later does a solo hula, which comes across as awkward. She later has a bizarre dream sequence where she imagines herself as a streetwalker and fan dancer.

Gidget (Walley) imagines herself as a street walker?

Gidget (Walley) imagines herself as a street walker?

“Frankly, we’ll take Miss Dee’s direct sweetness to Miss Walley’s squealing, calliope innocence any day,” Howard Thompson wrote in his Aug. 10, 1961, New York Times review.

Even the real Gidget, Kathy Kohner, agreed Sandra Dee was the best fit for the character. Gidget went from a cute, tomboy to being just like her boy crazy friends in this film.

Columbia wanted Sandra Dee to reprise her role, but she was under contract at Universal Pictures who would not release her for the film.

Moondoggie (Darren) tries to make Gidget jealous with Abby (Trickett)

Moondoggie (Darren) tries to make Gidget jealous with Abby (Trickett)

Walley apparently didn’t want to be cast in the film, because she considered herself a serious actor who was acting in New York. More than 150 other actresses were considered, according to “Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave” by Thomas Lisanti.

James Darren reprised his role as Moondoggie and is the best reason to watch the film. Jeff Donnell and Carl Reiner are fine as Gidget’s parents, though it is odd to see THE Carl Reiner in a “Gidget” film. The cast is rounded off by Peggy Cass and Eddie Foy, Jr.—another odd casting choice—as Abby’s parents.

This film does something which most sequels are guilty of, which is assuming the audience is stupid. “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” begins with Moondoggie giving Gidget his pin…but Gidget already agreed to wear his pin at the end of the 1959 film.

“James Darren is the steady lad who lands Gidget (as before, if we recall),” the New York Times also notes that we already knew they were going steady.

However, this film doesn’t ignore the fact that the 1959 film exists. As Gidget recounts her romance with Moondoggie to Abby, there are three painful reenactments of the 1959 version with Deborah Walley acting as Sandra Dee’s character, down to her wearing the same red, white and blue striped bathing suit.

L to R: 1959 Gidget in red bathing suit, 1961 Gidget reenactment of the original film, the scene Walley is reenacting.

L to R: 1959 Gidget in red bathing suit, 1961 Gidget reenactment of the original film, the scene Walley is reenacting.

The film also assumes the audience is stupid with Joby Baker’s role of Judge Hamilton, a college student Gidget meets on the plane to Hawaii and one of the many males flanking. In the 1959 film, Baker played one of the surf bums Stinky who sells Gidget her surf board.

Gidget’s moping about Moondoogie is pretty ridiculous as she says things such as, “I can’t swim in Hawaii, it’s the same ocean Jeff and I used to swim in.”

The film gets even more painful to watch once Moondoggie arrives in Hawaii and he and Gidget work to make each other jealous. Gidget hangs all over the guys and also does crazy stunts—such as a dangerous water ski jump—to give a thrill seeking vibe and show Moondogie she no longer cares for him, though this is false. These types of plots are frustrating to me anyways. I’m watching the film for their romance; not their petty arguement.

Though Sandra Dee is a spunkier fit for “Gidget,” I’m not even sure if she could have saved this film with its ridiculous script.

“Gidget Goes Hawaiian” is just one of many films proving that the original will generally be better than the sequel.

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Gidget: Bringing the Surf Culture to Mainstream

When I first started getting interested in classic films, my mom would get excited about movies she wanted to introduce to me. “Gidget” (1959) was one that she could hardly wait to show me.

Views of Sandra Dee in some of my favorite swimsuits and dresses from "Gidget."

Views of Sandra Dee in some of my favorite swimsuits and dresses from “Gidget.”

Sitting there on a Sunday night at age 14, I fell in love with this film. It’s an explosion of color on the gorgeous backdrop of Malibu beach. It features awesome surfing shots and has excellent cast filled with one-liners that are real gems. It’s the perfect fun-in-the-sun Southern California travelogue. To date, it also has one of my favorite film wardrobes.

The movie was pivotal in my film love and got me further entrenched in 1960s pop culture. I read up on famous surfers, researched surfer lingo, listened to the Beach Boys, plastered 1960s surf images around my room and hunted for bathing suits that gave off a 1960s vibe. Of course, I wanted to learn how to surf, which has still never happened since I live four hours away from the beach on the east coast.

“Gidget” is the story of a teenage tomboy, Francie Lawrence (Sandra Dee), who isn’t interested on going on “man-hunts” with her shapely female friends. Up until this summer, her extracurricular activities involved playing the cello and making straight A’s in school. Her dismay with her one-track-minded friends leads to joining a group of male surfers, much to their chagrin. Once they realize she’s interested in surfing and can hold her own in their group, Francie becomes their mascot and is nicknamed “Gidget”- the girl midget. Most of the boys live for surfing and some are “surf bums,” living on the beach all summer with the Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson) as their leader. Of course, Gidget’s summer doesn’t come without romance, as she is smitten with Moondoggie (James Darren).

"Gidget" film poster featuring Cliff Robertson, Sandra Dee, James Darren.

“Gidget” film poster featuring Cliff Robertson, Sandra Dee, James Darren.

On the surface, this is a teen beach romance. However, the film is also exploring if should Gidget follow the mainstream and chase boys with her friends or if she should do what she loves as one of the few females surfing in Malibu. Gidget’s loving but concerned parents (Arthur O’Connell, Mary LaRoche) support their daughter in her new outdoor activity but are still concerned about the type of people she is hanging around.

While “Gidget” may seem like a piece of fluff, this film was not only influential in the life of an impressionable 14 year old, but also in American culture. The first film started a popular franchise of “Gidget” sequels and television shows. But outside of the sequels, it also spawned a film subgenre of beach party films. These mainly low budget teenage beach films featured attractive teens in bathing suits, surfing, slapstick comedy and performances from popular 1960s musicians.

Every surfing film from “Beach Blanket Bingo” to “The Endless Summer” was a result of “Gidget,” though “Gidget” remains to be one of the better beach films. But it didn’t stop at movies; the popularity of beach music such as Dick Dale, The Ventures or the Beach Boys was also a direct correlation.

However, “Gidget” wasn’t just a story that started a popular franchise and culture. It was all based off a southern California teenager who wanted to write a story about her summer.

Cover of the 1956 by Frederick Kohner- featuring Kathy Kohner- about his daughter's surf adventures.

Cover of the 1956 by Frederick Kohner- featuring Kathy Kohner- about his daughter’s surf adventures.

The film is based off the 1956 book “Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas” by Hollywood screenwriter Frederick Kohner. Kohner’s 15-year-old daughter, Kathy, started surfing one summer and would share her beach stories with her father. When Kathy wanted to write a story about her adventures as the mascot “Gidget,” Kohner offered to write it for her. It took Kohner six weeks to write the book which involved reading excerpts from her diary, listening in on phone calls (both with her permission) and conversations with his daughter. Kathy shared the nicknames of the surfers and the surfer slang, from “kuks” to “bitchin’” to “shootin’ the curl.” The book became a bestseller and spawned the film.

The real Gidget was fairly amused by the film, writing in her dairy, “Saw Gidget today, it was funny.” Kathy said in “Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave” by Thomas Lisant that she had never heard of Sandra Dee, but when they met she was very sweet. The sweet, innocent Sandra Dee character was a far cry from her experiences at the beach. In the book, Gidget talks about wearing a particular sweater to make her breasts look perky, smoked cigarettes or frequently uses the word “bitchin’” to describe the waves.

Sandra Dee as Gidget with the real Gidget, Kathy Kohner in 1959.

Sandra Dee as Gidget with the real Gidget, Kathy Kohner in 1959.

“It was quite funny seeing Sandra Dee and these other people acting in a movie that some of us lived,” Kathy said in Lisant’s book. “I think Miss Dee did an outstanding, memorable job and captured a moment in time…I am a real person. I’m shorter than Dee and have dark hair. I was a bit tenacious and bit fearless…Certainly I had a different personality but of all the actress that played Gidget, Sandra Dee came the closest in capturing my experiences from surfing to wishing my breasts would grow bigger to my relationship with my parents.”

As the surfing subculture reached mainstream, the once calm Malibu were overcrowded. The number of surfboards in the water seemed dangers to Kathy, according to Lisant. Once the film was released, Kathy was in college at Oregon State, but the real Gidget stopped surfing in 1960. The beaches were over populated with the craze that she unintentionally began.

Photos below from an Oct. 28, 1957, LIFE photo spread on Kathy Kohner and her father: 

Kathy2 Kathy and surfers Kathy and Fredrick Kathy 1957 life Kathy 1956 16 year old kathy

 

What is your favorite beach film? Which Gidget is your favorite? 

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