I recall how stunned I was as a teenager when I bought a used paperback copy of Fredrick Kohner’s novel Gidget with a photo of Sandra Dee on the cover. Though I had grown up with Gidget–my stepfather wrote the Gidget movies’ theme songs and incidental music, I had watched the TV show reruns as a little girl, we lived just minutes from the beach, and friends of mine surfed–I didn’t know that Gidget was (loosely) based on the adventures of the author’s daughter in the summer of 1956.
I learned a very important thing from the Gidget novel. In a dangerously romantic scene Kahuna, the older surfer bum explains an important difference to the Gidget:
A good girl goes goes on a date, goes home and goes to bed. A nice girl goes on a date, goes to bed and goes home.
I read that line over just to make sure I understood exactly what was being said.
So I was stoked to watch Brian Gillogly’s documentary Accidental Icon, The Real Gidget Story and even more stoked that it explicated what I had always thought: The bestselling coming of age story set in Malibu was actually a breakthrough in female and youth empowerment which forever altered the face of women, youth culture and Southern California.
Gillogly’s documentary shows how the Gidget phenomenon erupted and is still affecting society. A Czechoslovakian Jew working the German film industry, Fredrick Kohner left Germany in 1933 with the help of his brother, a talent agent in the United States, after the Nazi government began removing Jewish screen credits. He and his wife raised their daughters close to the beach and when Kathy became enthralled with surfing, he encouraged her to tell him tales of her adventures. Kathy had met a crew of guys who lived to surf –one actually lived in a shack on the beach he built himself– guys who eschewed the traditional nine-to-five lifestyles in order to catch the waves and hang out.
Kohner codified the surfer slang his daughter brought home, as well as spinning a romanticized story of love and yearning, of awakening awareness of sexuality, and the counterculture. The book struck a chord around the world; it became a bestseller and has been translated into several different languages. Teenagers flocked to the beaches and hung out, surfing, talking, flirting. The year the film version starring Sandra Dee and James Darren hit the screens, foam surf boards were introduced, a lower cost, lighter weight alternative to traditional balsa wood boards; and the Beach Boys released their first album. The television series launched Sally Field’s career, while the Gidget films and television show created jobs for the Malibu surfers as extras and surf coaches.
And girls took to the waves, some becoming the championship surfers we see today, others just enjoying the experience, all crediting Gidget for the inspiration. Gidget proved that all things were possible. If a petite 15 year old could ride the waves and be accepted, they could too. Gidget’s feisty spirit and innocent joy at the world, her desire to do what she wanted to do –traditions be darned– were a transition from the rigid societal idea of women to the open and empowered women who would emerge through the 1960s counterculture and into the present.
With interviews from Sally Field, Gidget film and television directors and actors, world renown surfers, the original surfers of Malibu and the Kahuna himself, Accidental Icon, The Real Gidget shows the late 1950s as a world fraught with possibility, taking us through the changes wrought by a father’s enchantment with his daughter’s life.