In the late 1950s, a 15-year-old California girl named Gidget transformed the face of surfing forever.
Kathy Kohner Zuckerman’s adventures in the lineup, first chronicled by her father in “Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas,” became the foundation for a series of novels, three feature films and a hit television series.
Now they’re the inspiration for the documentary “Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget,” screening Wednesday at the Fremont theater in San Luis Obispo. The event, which features appearances by Zuckerman, filmmaker Brian Gillogly and women’s surfing pioneer Linda Benson, benefits the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival and the Women’s Legacy Fund, an endowment targeting the needs of women and girls held at the San Luis Obispo County Community Foundation.
“I think the back story of ‘Gidget’ is really more interesting than the movies or TV show,” said Gillogly, noting that the nickname “Gidget” has become a byword for bikini-clad surfers with sand between their toes and stars in their eyes. “She had such a profound influence on so many people.”
The daughter of Hollywood screenwriter Frederick Kohner, Zuckerman remembers visiting Malibu’s Surfrider Beach with her family as early as age 3.
As she grew older, however, she longed to join the mostly male surfers she saw riding the waves. She got her first balsawood surfboard in June 1956.
“I wandered away from the older element, the 40-year-olds, and went to hang out with the surfers,” Zuckerman, 71, said. “C’mon — there were boys there, and they were good looking.”
Although Zuckerman can’t remember who first called her “Gidget” — the nickname, a combination of “girl” and “midget,” has been attributed alternately to surfers Jerry Hurst and Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy — she said that the act represented a rite of passage.
“They all had nicknames … Tubesteak, Moondoggie, The Fencer, The Jaw, Turtle,” said the 5-foot-1 Zuckerman, who the older surfers treated like a kid sister. “I was like, ‘Wow, I got a nickname now.’ ”
“Kathy was pretty fearless on the beach, and she’s still pretty fearless,” Gillogly said. “This was a gal who would not take ‘no’ for an answer. She had to learn how to surf. She had to worm her way into this male bastion.”
It was the spunky young surfer who came up with the idea of turning her Malibu beach adventures into a book.
“One day in the car coming home, I just said, ‘I want to write a story about what’s going on in Malibu,’ ” Zuckerman recalled. “My father said, ‘You’re not a writer, I’m a writer. Tell everything to me and I’ll write it for you.’ ”
Three weeks later, he had written a novel about the adventures of Frances “Gidget” Lawrence, a typical teen obsessed with sun, surfing and boys.
Published in 1957, “Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas” was “hugely successful,” said Zuckerman, whose father eventually wrote six more Gidget books.
Kohner also penned the screenplay for the 1959 movie “Gidget,” starring Sandra Dee as Gidget, James Darren as love interest Moondoggie and Cliff Robertson as worldly beach bum Kahuna.
Subsequent sequels starred Deborah Walley and Cindy Carol in the title role, while future Oscar winner Sally Field got her start in show business playing Gidget on television from 1965 to 1966.
Ironically, Gidget’s popularity had a negative effect on her real-life counterpart.
Zuckerman quit surfing at age 18, intimidated by the sheer numbers of surfers attracted to her favorite spot.
After “Gidget” came out, “Malibu was really crowded and I got scared,” she explained. “There were thousands of boards flying around.”
Besides, Zuckerman added, she had no need for a surfboard while studying English at Oregon State College, now Oregon State University. She was known on campus as “that Gidget girl.”
She eventually married Yiddish scholar Marvin Zuckerman and moved to Pacific Palisades. The former teacher works as a hostess at Duke’s Malibu restaurant, named after legendary Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku, when she’s not making public appearances across the globe.
When the Berkley Publishing Group reissued “Gidget” in 2001, “I made it a mission to learn how to make it as a public speaker,” Zuckerman explained. “I just feel very welcomed by the surfing community because I give back.”
“People love Gidget,” she added. “She represents all the fun things about the (1950s and) ’60s.”
MEET THE STAR
Want to meet the real-life inspiration for Gidget? Kathy Kohner Zuckerman will attend a reception from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday at Luis Wine Bar, 1021 Higuera St. in San Luis Obispo, along with filmmaker Brian Gillogly and women’s surfing pioneer Linda Benson. Admission is $50.
All three will also participate in a question-and-answer session after Wednesday’s screening of “Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget,” 7:30 p.m. at the Fremont theater, 1025 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo. A donation of $15, or $10 for students, is suggested.
For more information, call 546-3456 or visit www.slofilmfest.org.