march 2011

Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, the real Gidget, takes a stroll Down Under while attending the Noosa Festival of Surfing and the Australian premier of Brian L. Gillogly’s documentary about her life and times, Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story. (Photo courtesy Brian L. Gillogly, Leftpeak Productions)

Gidget Goes to Oz

By Brian L. Gillogly

(Kathy "Gidget" Zuckerman, the real-life surfer girl who inspired the fictional Gidget of the novel, movies and TV series, is currently touring the U.S. with the feature documentary Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story. The film explores Kathy's personal story, as well as the evolution of the Gidget icon and its impact of the on surfing and culture. The following story, by the film’s writer/director/producer, describes the events surrounding the Australian premiere of Accidental Icon.)

"Fish out of water" is a timeless plot device in novels and feature films, and Frederick Kohner's landmark 1957 novella Gidget really reeled it in. A girl encounters a group of bohemian male surfers on the beach at Malibu, entices them with food, learns to surf and falls in love with one of young men. The book was a best-seller, one notch ahead of Jack Kerouac's On the Road on the LA Times' top 10 list, and inspired a 30-year film/TV franchise for Columbia.

The twist is that the tale was based on the true experiences of Kohner's daughter Kathy at the `bu in the mid-‘50s, even if the real story was a bit grittier and textured. In fact, as she reveals in the documentary Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story, young Kathy was looking for a place to belong, a "third place" besides home and school, and surfing and the guys on the beach provided that refuge. Yes, being the odd girl out was rough going at first, but eventually she fit in-and changed surfing forever.

Kathy Kohner Zuckerman and her husband of 40-plus years, Marvin Zuckerman, at the Noosa Festival of Surfing. When they met, he had no idea who Gidget was, or that her story was based on Kathy’s teenage years as a pioneering female surfer in the Malibu community.

Kathy's place in the explosive growth of the sport in the early ‘60s, accidental though it was, was celebrated when she and husband Marvin Zuckerman visited the land Down Under in March 2010 for the huge Noosa Festival of Surfing and Australian premier of Accidental Icon. Noosa Longboards, a surf shop just across the street from the classic right point break of Noosa Headlands, was a sponsor of the trip, and put her to good use during several busy autograph sessions. Signed paperback copies of the 2001 reprinting of Gidget novel went for three to four times the U.S. price, but her fans didn't flinch.  In an island nation where surfing is hot and surf culture taken seriously, Kathy was celebrity de jour.

At one of the signing events, a middle-aged bloke actually professed a teenage crush on Kathy-tough he probably meant Sally Field, inasmuch as Field's 1965 Gidget TV series made waves down here. Perhaps more surprising was a 20-something gal named Tracy, who seemed normal except for owning the biggest personal collection of "Gidget" memorabilia yet. "There's stuff here I've never seen before!" Kathy muttered in amazement, including a rather hideous "Gidget A-Go-Go" doll that looked more Cabbage Patch than Malibu Barbie.

A block from the beach was "Surf City," the staging area for films, concerts and booths, but one local dubbed it "Woodstock meets Noosa" for the muddy field drenched by unusually heavy rains. The sound from a concert during the early days of the event had actually been drowned out by tropical cloudbursts. However, later in the week, the gods smiled down on the California surfer girl as fair weather prevailed for "Gidget's Night Out," an extravaganza culminating with the screening of the "doco" in the big tent.

Introducing the movie was seven-time World Surf Champion Layne Beachley, California surf pioneer Mickey Munoz and the Gidge. This was no mere assemblage of surf notables, though, as Layne had assumed the nickname "Gidget" in her younger day, and Mickey had doubled for Sandra Dee in the original Gidget film. The organizers even persuaded Mr. Munoz to don a replica of one of Dee's orange swimsuit from the film. Munoz, his body toned from regular standup paddle surf sessions, even seemed to pull it off.

Accidental Icon had been radically re-cut for legal and creative reasons, and no one in Australia, not even Kathy and Marvin, had seen this edit. Sixty minutes later the reviews were in, with a standing ovation and lavish praise. Surf City master of ceremonies PT called it a "huge success!" And Parrish, a bearded surfer from Noosa Longboards who could pass for a Greenwich Village beatnik, simply offered, "It's the best surf movie I've ever seen...not at all what I expected."

Seven-time World Champion surfer Layne Beachley (left) and legendary Malibu surfer Mickey Munoz (right) honor the real Gidget prior to a screening of Brian L. Gillogly’s documentary at the Noosa Festival of Surfing. Munoz, who doubled for Sandra Dee in the surfing scenes in the original Gidget movie, is wearing a replica of one of Dee/Gidget’s orange swimsuits. (Photo courtesy Brian L. Gillogly, Leftpeak Productions)

Gidget capped her journey to Oz with a visit to the Gold Coast. Mal Sutherland, Chair of the Surf World museum in Currumbin, was the perfect tour guide, as he had grown up surfing here and photographing the early days of the sport. The Zuckermans took in the good weather and waves at Point Danger, where Captain Cook narrowly escaped hazardous reefs 240 years earlier. Kathy, by comparison, felt quite safe and relaxed during long strolls along the beautiful, squeaky white sand beach at Coolangatta, a welcome respite from the commotion of days past.

The Gidge, however, was not down for the count. Sutherland was to provide a last hurrah by way of a "once in a lifetime" gathering at the museum, where Beachley, current World Champ Stephanie Gilmore, 1st Australian Women's title holder Phyllis O'Donell and Kathy would join together for "The Divas of Surfing." Butchie, a glib, gregarious guy and one-time announcer for the pro surf tour, turned the evening into a romp through their personal histories. Phyllis was asked about a car crash in Puerto Rico during the `68 World Contest, to which she replied, "I remember the rum!" Layne shared the mind numbing experience of being towed into a mammoth wave. That was immediately followed by someone from the audience asking Gilmore about her own scariest memory, to which she quipped, "Layne driving me across France!"

As for a favorite anecdote from the trip, perhaps the good natured Mr. Zuckerman wins the prize. Immediately preceding the screening of Accidental Icon at Noosa, a retro ‘60s swimsuit fashion show took to the runway. Lynette, a veteran local surfer and newfound friend of the Zuckermans, tapped Marvin on the shoulder just as a pretty model passed by, and said, "Oh, I like her hat." To which he simply deadpanned, "She was wearing a hat?" Being married to a spunky, extroverted surfer gal named Gidget, you'd have to have a sense of humor.

Brian L. Gillogly is writer/director/producer of Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story. For more information go to

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