Question: Am I misremembering, or was the Gidget show based on a real girl who surfed? Thank you. Gordon B., Anchorage
Televisionary: Your memory's fine on that front, Gordon. Gidget, the ABC series which ran for a year beginning in September 1965 and was preceded by three movies and a best-selling book, was indeed based on the waveborne exploits of a real teenager. Francine "Gidget" Lawrence (Sally Field), was based on California girl Kathy "Gidget" Kohner, whose dad, Frederick, wrote the book that launched the whole phenomenon.
In a 1965 TV Guide article, Kohner recalled the circumstances leading up to his popular work. A refugee from Hitler's Third Reich, he moved to California to be a screenwriter in 1936. Twenty years later, he hit a rough patch after plans to open one of his plays on Broadway fell through, which meant he and his family couldn't do their usual Malibu summer rental. Instead, he took his wife and two teenage daughters out to the beach every day, where 15-year-old Kathy began hanging out with a crew of surf bums who'd built a shack on the beach in a nearby cove.
"No female in those days would have dared muscle into the surfing orbit, and certainly no girl as small as my daughter, barely 5 feet tall and only 95 lbs. soaking wet," Kohner wrote. "Kathy, however, muscled."
His daughter, already a good swimmer, ingratiated herself with the "Mother Bu" (surfer slang for Malibu) boys by raiding her parents' fridge to bring them food. In return, they took her out on their boards and taught her to surf. Regaling her parents with tales about such characters as "Quick Higgie," "Tube Steak," "Mickey Dora" and "Monster," Kathy suggested her dad write about the group. When he said he knew nothing about surfing, she promised to clue him in. Yet he procrastinated until one of her buddies handed him his title in a phone call.
"One evening just before Christmas the phone rang and I answered," he wrote. "A male voice asked: 'Where's the Gidget?' "How the hell should I know?' I said friendly-like, and was about to hang up. 'Hey,' the voice caught me with the receiver in midair. 'Haven't you got a daughter?' 'Two,' I answered. 'I mean the little one the Gidget.'"
Kohner summoned his daughter from her room, handing her the phone after she confirmed she was the one the caller wanted. Three hours later, after she hung up, she explained the handle. "It's like this," she told him. "I'm so small the kooks called me Midget. I got mad. So now it's Gidget. A girl midget. A gidget. Get it?"
He did, and sat down that evening to start banging out Gidget, which was meant to be a story. After Christmas, and 30,000 words later, he finished, having periodically checked details and lingo with his daughter. His agent then sold the story, which Kohner had hoped to place merely as a magazine piece, to the first publisher who read it. Published in hardcover in 1957, it sold more than 2 million copies its first year out and spawned a phenomenon.
When Columbia Studios planned a Gidget series, casting agent Eddie Foy III made the rounds of the local acting classes looking for a "petite, bite-size bundle of joy." One teacher handed him Field, who beat out the hundreds of other actresses vying for the role even though she'd done only high-school plays up to that point. Complicating matters, though, was the fact that she couldn't surf. So expert surfer Darryl Stolper was brought in to whip her into shape, which, as luck would have it, proved to be relatively easy.
"Her coordination is amazing," Stolper said of his star-to-be pupil in 1965. "She was standing up by her second lesson." For her part, Field learned to hang 10 convincingly after four months, but learned a lot about falling off, too. "If I'm losing my balance I try to go off the side or back and then the board goes onto shore," she said at the time. "Another thing to remember if you think the board might hit you find the bottom of the ocean and lie there as long as possible."
And the real Gidget? According to her dad, the craze she helped propel meant younger and younger women stormed the beaches, learning to surf better and more daringly than she did and, in effect, muscling her out of the water. "When I go out to Mother Bu I feel like a has-been," she told her father. Shortly after, she sold her balsa board.