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Surfin’ Malibu

Surfrider Beach was the domain of a small, rag-tag group of surfing pioneers—until a teenager nicknamed “Gidget” burst onto the scene

Kathy Gidget” Korner, with her friends, hanging out at a wall built by one of Malibu’s wealthiest families to keep the beach private.
| The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In 1956, an athletic 15-year-old from Brentwood named Kathy Kohner wandered down the quiet beach in Malibu. She had escaped the stuffy cultural confines of a beach house where her parents, intellectual European emigres, chatted with other high-brow adults. Right next to the Malibu Pier, at what is now known as Surfrider Beach, Kohner stumbled upon a literal shack on the sand.

It was the dwelling of Terry-Michael “Tubesteak” Tracy, who had constructed it out of palm fronds and old telephone poles. But the real action was in the water, where Tubesteak and other tanned gods rode the perfect waves of Malibu. Kohner was instantly enamored with the secret, sandy world she had discovered.

“It was a most alluring lifestyle, especially to a fifteen-year-old girl,” she wrote decades later. “They were boys who lived on the beach… They all had nicknames… it seemed there wasn’t any other aspect of their lives except taking in the sun and sea, waxing down their boards, and paddling out looking for a great wave to catch.”

The persistent teenager began to shadow the surfers, desperate to learn to surf. To butter up the often-hungry guys, Kohner would bring them sandwiches, which she would often trade for a trip on their boards.

After accepting one of her sandwiches, pioneering surfer Jerry Hurst said, “Thanks, Gidget,” slang for “girl” and “midget.” With that throwaway nickname, Gidget was born, and Malibu would be forever changed.

Riding a wave at Surfrider Beach in 2007.
AP
Surfrider Beach in 1966.

Since the 1920s, pioneering surfers had been going to great lengths to ride the three legendary point breaks at Surfrider Beach. Swim club lifeguard Tom Blake, with his friend Sam Reid alongside him, is considered by many to have been the first to catch a Malibu wave in 1926.

Malibu was then the 20-odd-mile private domain of the powerful Rindge family. In 1892, Frederick and May Rindge had purchased more than 13,000 acres of the Rancho Malibu, with the intention of making it a nature preserve and personal paradise. After Frederick’s early death in 1905, May ferociously guarded her family’s land.

In the late ’20s and early ’30s, the only residents of Malibu were the Rindges, Rindge family employees, and entertainment industry stars and moguls. May had begrudgingly allowed members of the Hollywood elite to rent lots on a 1-mile stretch of shore due to a complicated court battle that forced her to allow public access to Malibu.

To clearly mark what was still the family’s personal property, the Rindge’s built Spanish style walls skirting the shore.

This meant surfing at Malibu wasn’t as easy as driving the PCH and unloading your boards. According to one history:

Once they passed the tough and rigorous check-out [armed cowboys at the southern entrance to the ranch], they would head up the Pacific Coast Highway to the recently opened Rancho Malibu. The lads with their boards would crawl through a “friendly” hole in the fence at Malibu Potteries to hit the surf and paddle out to Malibu Point.

Once surfers reached the shore, they were greeted by a pristine, virtually deserted paradise.

“Before the war, you’d call somebody before you went to Malibu because you didn’t want to surf alone,” surfer and surf photographer LeRoy Grannis remembered. “What we considered to be a crowd, back then, would be a beautiful day, today.”

With the development of lighter boards in the 1940s, the artistry and facility of surfing greatly advanced. Malibu also became much more accessible, as money problems forced the Rindges to sell more and more land. More businesses and houses appeared, turning the neighborhood into an upscale outpost of movie stars and tourists.

By the early 1950s, Surfrider Beach was the domain of a small, rag-tag group of surfing pioneers who could be found in the waves from the early morning to late at night.

They were led by the legendary Miki “da cat” Dora, whose grace and elegance on the board led fellow surfer Mike Nader to call him “the Cary Grant of surfers.” On land, Miki was an accomplished con-man, donning a tuxedo to steal from the wealthy at movie industry parties, raiding his fellow surfers’ refrigerators for food, and stealing their wallets from canyon crevices. Miki’s dark charisma was balanced out by Tubesteak, his goofy, friendly wing-man.

They were joined by famous early surfers like blue-eyed Bill Jensen, the legendary Matt Kivlin, future artist Billy Al “Moondoggie” Bengston, blond Jerry Hurst, and the incomparable Johnny Fain. Bill Jensen recalled those early days:

We’d burn tires on the beach for warmth, and no one cared. We’d knock on doors and ask people to let us surf their private beaches, and they’d let us. With 18-cent cheeseburgers, cheap gasoline, and $3-an-hour jobs at Safeway loading fruit from four to seven a.m., you could be a surf bum. We had our own language. If you were really jazzed on surfing, you were ‘stoked.’ Surfers were ‘doggies in the water.’ A great day: ‘You had the place wired.’ 

It was into this intimate, counter-culture community of lost boys that Kohner stepped in the summer of 1956. The surfers were virtually unbothered and ignored—they were an afterthought in insular, upscale Malibu.

“You say ‘Malibu,’ and immediately you think of the movie colony and the snazzy beach houses—and James Mason wading into the sundown account of being a has-been and all,” Fredrick Kohner wrote in Gidget.

Kathy Korner, at age 16, loading her board into her car.
The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Gidget was soon a regular at Surfrider Beach. “I bought my first surfboard from Mike Doyle for thirty dollars and hit the water,” she recalled to Vanity Fair. “They’d throw my board over the fence, throw pineapple at me. But I learned how to surf. I got my legs dinged, my knees dinged, my board dinged, but I learned.”

When she got home to the comfort of Brentwood, she would write in her diary about her endless summer days. “Boy the surf was so bitchen today,” she wrote in August 1957. “I couldn’t believe it…I got some real good rides from inside.”

Gidget wasn’t the only woman surfing the waves at Malibu. There was Mary Hughes, a statuesque, enigmatic blond who would stroll onto the beach flanked by two male surfers- who happened to be identical twins. Then there was open-faced and athletic Kathy Kessler, and an elegant society matron named Eugenia Wilson. “Eugenia was the only mom in the ocean—and she was good,” Mike Nader remembered.

When they weren’t surfing, the surfers would hang around the iconic wall, a relic of the days when Malibu was the Rindge family’s private playground.

“You could surf every wave you wanted,” surfboard designer Lance Carson recalled. “All the people would sit around the wall at Malibu Beach-which we would call ‘the pit.’ We would play ukuleles, wear cut-off jeans and straw hats and drink beer as we watched Dale Velez shape boards.”

This chill, relatively unnoticed community would be shot into the stratosphere in the fall of 1957. Gidget’s father, screenwriter Frederick Kohner, had become fascinated with the world his daughter had discovered.

Using her writings and recollections, he wrote Gidget, the story of a spunky teenage girl who falls in love with a boy named Moondoggie and surfing in Malibu, “where the waves coming from Japan crash against the shore like some bitchen rocket bombs.” The delightful book was a smash, selling around 2 million copies. In 1959, the movie version of Gidget, starring the effervescent Sandra Dee, was released.

Crowds of teenagers and tourists descended on Malibu, hoping to catch of glimpse of the real Gidget and her love interest, Moondoggie.

“They reacted negatively when the movie came out,” Kohner recalled to People of her surfing buddies. “They felt that the whole surfing scene would change and there would be millions of boards down there.”

But the original surfers also reaped the benefits of Gidget’s success. Hollywood and the mainstream press became fascinated with Malibu’s “surf culture”—which until then had consisted of a community of under 50 regulars.

Miki Dora now had a pack of younger, attractive surfing acolytes including future actor Mike Nader, Larry Shaw, and Duane King. In 1961, the guys were featured in a story in Life magazine entitled, “The Mad, Happy Surfers: A Way of Life on the Wavetops.” In 1962, the Beach Boys released “Surfin’ Safari,” even though only one of the group, Dennis Wilson, actually surfed.

Gidget also spawned sequels and dozens of other teen surfer films that came to be known as “waxploitation” movies. The pioneering surfers who inspired Gidget might have grumbled, but they were more than willing to make cameo appearances and stunt double for actors in the films.

“After the book came out, and then the movie and TV show, everything changed in Malibu. It became such a popular spot,” Kohner said. “I never saw the danger in surfing, until there was a mob of boards out there.”

Most of the original surfers moved on to bigger waves and adulthood or fell into the drug scene that was engulfing Malibu and Hollywood. “Tubesteak, Kivlin, Dora—they all fled Malibu,” historian Matt Warshaw told Surfer.com, “more or less for reasons having to do with it becoming so public, so famous.”

Today, the point breaks at Surfrider Beach are packed with surfers in early morning and late afternoon. On the shore, hoards of tourists from all over the world crane to catch a glimpse and take photos in front of a portion of the Rindge wall where the diehard surfers—many who live in vans parked along the PCH—still rest their beat-up boards.

“Intimacy at a place like Malibu,” Warshaw explained, “doesn’t really exist.”

Malibu has now fully embraced its status as the epicenter of surf culture. You can take surfing lessons, surfing tours, and sign your child up for surf camp. In 2010, Surfrider Beach was named the globe’s first World Surfing Reserve.

A little over 2 miles away, Kathy Kohner Zuckerman—Gidget herself—works part-time as a hostess at perennially popular tourist spot Duke’s Malibu, named after legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku. “I love every minute of it,” she told Coastal Living. “It keeps me talking about this wonderful adventure.”

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