Do you know this woman? Before you answer, read this.
This woman totally changed American pop culture without even trying.
Her name is Kathy Kohner. She’s not a composer or a musician. She’s not an artist or designer, yet without her, popular culture in the 1960’s might have been radically different.
That’s because during the summer of 1956, 15-year old Kathy started hanging around with a group of guys on the beach in Malibu who teased her because of her height (she was under 5”) and gave her the nickname Gidget.
Yes, Virginia, there is a real-life Gidget. Her dad, Frederick Kohner, was a writer who turned her adventures with a small group of surfing enthusiasts in the summer of 1956 into a modest little “teen appeal” novel called Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas.
The rest is pop culture history.
The book was published in 1957 (yes, that’s the real Kathy on the cover) and did well enough that Columbia Pictures bought the film rights. Beginning in 1959, there were 3 Gidget films and a TV series that introduced us to a young actress named Sally Field. More importantly, the runaway success of the first Gidget film (starring 16-year old Sandra Dee) touched off a surfing craze that has never really gone away.
In addition to spawning a wave of surf shops and surfer magazines, the surfing craze also gave us surf music, which in turn provided us with what is inarguably one of the greatest American rock bands – the Beach Boys.
The sun, the surf, and the great music cranked out by Brian Wilson and his friends (which included Jan & Dean, Dick Dale, and others) helped shift the focus in American pop culture. Previously, the country took its cue from the East Coast, primarily New York City. Thanks in large part to the surfing craze of the early 60’s, the Pepsi Generation now looked to the West Coast for its fashions, passions and trends.
And it’s all due to little Kathy Kohner deciding that she wanted to surf back in the summer of 1956!
By the way, Kathy is still with us. Her name is now Kathy Kohner Zuckerman. She eventually settled in the Los Angeles area as a teacher. She married college professor Marvin Zuckerman and raised two children. At last report, she was still surfing at age 73. She is also the subject of a 2010 film documentary, Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story.
Somehow, knowing Gidget is still out there shooting the curl is very comforting.
By the way, Gidget also is responsible (indirectly) for the tidal wave of BEACH PARTY MOVIES! You can reads about them here at Boomtown America as well!