Real-life 'Gidget' a hostess at 71

LINDA MASSARELLA, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:54 AM ET

MALIBU -- There's something familiar about the spry elderly lady who approaches our party of four at an oceanside restaurant called Duke's, where our table by a big opened window that overlooks the Pacific is covered in hamburgers and beer.

"I'm Gidget," the pleasant hostess smiles. "The real one."

If we weren't at a restaurant that sat on Malibu beach, where surfers can be seen weaving on the waves, I would never have put two and two together.

"Gidget? ... You mean, the surfer girl?" I stammered while she smiled warmly.

"That's me," she said. At 71, Gidget is now Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman, a former school teacher, a mother and grandmother.

I've heard tell of famous American icons that have been reduced to waiting tables or other B-level jobs. Screen siren Veronica Lake, of the famous silky hair always halfway in her face, famously ended her days waiting tables at the Algonquin Hotel in New York.

Gidget, of course, knew what I was thinking.

"I'm not a waitress," she smiled. "I work as a hostess and ambassador here twice a week because I greet the guests, show them the wall of photos of me and other surfers. And I sell them our books. I sell a lot, too!"

Yes, it turns out the two-days-a-week work arrangement Kohner-Zuckerman has set up with Duke's is a smart bit of marketing on her part. Guests love her!

There's a huge tourist trade and a captive audience who grew up on all the hit Gidget surfer movies and TV shows that starred such Hollywood cuties as Sandra Dee, Bobby Darin and Sally Field.

And by showing up at Duke's for the past 10 years, Zuckerman is working single-handedly to keep her father's works alive.

The family used to own its own bookstore for tourists interested in surfing books, which of course featured Gidget in the store window, but it has since closed. "I sell cartons of books a day," she said. "People are still so very interested in my story."

Zuckerman said the whole Gidget story came to be because her father, Fritz Kohner, was a Hollywood screenwriter in search of the next story. One day, he saw his 15-year-old daughter's diary lying around -- and read it! He saw past a girl's general musings and found a girl who was caught on the brink of womanhood and trying to fit in with her beach buddies. To top it off, those friends actually did call her "Gidget," meaning girl-midget.

With all the material there, Kohner distilled it into a widely praised novel called Gidget, The Little Girl With Big Ideas, which quickly sold to the studios. In 1959, Gidget was released starring Sandra Dee in the title role and James Darren as the boy she moons over, Moondoggie.

Kohner, who later married scholar Marvin Zuckerman, grew up having to go to Gidget events such as walking red carpets and attending book sequel signings with her father.

Throughout, she continued to hit the surf with her board.

"At 71, I'm not really surfing so much any more. But I do paddle out on my long board," she told QMI Agency.

Last year was a big year for the still very petite blond. She was inducted into the Surfing Walk Hall of Fame, declared by Surfer magazine as No. 7 in the Top 25 Most Influential Surfers of All Time and had a documentary made about her called Accidental Icon.

"I love the attention," she said. "And it's great when Canadians come. They really don't have surfing in Canada, except for Nova Scotia, but they all seem to have fantasized about trying it."


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