Malibu’s original ‘Gidget’ celebrated at fundraiser

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Images of Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman, whose fame as “Gidget” helped bring the surf culture to the masses, are shown on the wall at Duke’s Malibu restaurant. Contributed Photo.

It was a packed house at Duke’s Malibu restaurant July 12 when more than 150 surf enthusiasts joined the Malibu Surfing Association for a fundraiser and tribute to women surfers. The evening including a silent auction and a Q&A with a panel of the surf world’s brain trust.

Pro surfer Mary Osborne; Jericho Poppler, the first woman to win a world surfing title; surf legend Allen Sarlo, an original member of the Z-Boys surf and skateboarding team; Jim Kempton, the author of “Women on Waves”; and one of the first women on a wave, Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman, the original “Gidget,” took questions from the audience along with Emmy-winning writer/director/producer Brian Gillogly. who presented his documentary “Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story.”

The 2010 documentary by Gillogly chronicles the history behind the world-famous book and film franchise that brought surfing and its culture to the masses. It started in the mid-1950’s when the then Kathy Kohner became known as America’s original surfer girl. While she may not have been the first, she spurred a national cultural phenomenon as just a mere teenager. 

It was in Malibu where the young Kathy first learned to ride the waves from some older experienced surfers who bestowed her with the nickname “Gidget” a mashup of the words “girl” and “midget.” It was a way her mentors teased the petite newbie. Kathy persisted in her quest to ride the waves with the guys whom she bribed with homemade peanut butter sandwiches for lessons on a big board. 

After Kathy told her screenwriter father, Frederick Kohner, of her adventures surfing with the experienced male surfers who became legends in their own right, he wrote the book “Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas” that became a best seller, popularized surfing, and was turned into movies and television shows. Kohner-Zuckerman continues to be an icon in the surf community and as a pop-culture figure.

Kohner-Zuckerman today remains humble about her stature in the surf world. 

“There were always girls in the water before me,” the 81-year-old told The Malibu Times, and she also thanked the late surfer Diane Sanders for introducing her to MSA. “Gidget didn’t know about surfing clubs back then.”

To raise money, MSA opened up its meeting to the Malibu community for a special “summer night” edition. MSA meets the second Tuesday of the month at Duke’s where member Kohner-Zuckerman has been carrying on the restaurant namesake’s legendary title of Ambassador of Aloha, greeting guests with smiles and posing for selfies. Along with a silent auction of surf photographs, artwork, and memorabilia, MSA raised nearly $4,000. MSA co-president Karon Pardue reported the proceeds will be used to stage the upcoming Malibu Classic surf contest Sept. 10 and 11. The invitational features top surfers who will besiege Surfrider Beach that weekend just as the summer crowds have left.

At 61 years old, the Malibu Surfing Association is one of the oldest clubs around in its sport. “We were the first to put on a surf contest,” according to Pardue.

Along with raising funds, Tuesday’s event was a celebration for Kohner-Kuckerman. 

“Summer’s here. Surfing rules. It’s positive for girls to get in the water,” she commented. 

“Gidget” was also pleased to have the documentary shown. “I saw a lot of young girls stoked by the Gidget energy.” She also appreciated seeing some late figures represented in the movie. “It’s historical in a way to have this on film,” 

Kohner-Zuckerman recalled of some people in the film, including the late Frank Pierson, father of Malibu City Councilmember Mikke Pierson. Kohner-Zuckerman was a little overwhelmed by fans requesting photos but said she was very pleased with the night’s turnout, saying “I had such a good time.”

“We’re trying to do more in the community and give back,” Pardue concluded. “We honor women surfers.”