Mar 7, 2014
Posted on May 24, 2011
Letter From the West is a monthly series by Deanne Stillman that explores what is going on in our wide open spaces and what we do to one another and all that lives there.
The ladies’ room at the Tres Hombres Restaurant in Hawaii is named Gidget. A cook on the Internet calls herself Gidget, and so does a stripper on cable television. Malibu Chicken features a sandwich called Gidget, and Barney’s used to sell a line of Gidget lipstick. The Taco Bell Chihuahua was named Gidget, and the Suburban Lawns invoked Gidget in their song “Gidget Goes to Hell.”
There is a person who has a certain visceral reaction whenever she comes across another person or product carrying this name, whenever she hears or reads about its use. Sometimes she finds it funny and laughs out loud. Sometimes it breaks her heart but she doesn’t show it. Sometimes she’d like to file a lawsuit, but decides not to, because who wants to deal with lawyers? And sometimes she just gets tired, and doesn’t talk to anyone for a while. The person is Gidget—not any of the seven actresses who have played the perky beach bunny who occasionally surfed but more often ran after boys, but the real Gidget, from whose life all things Gidget have sprung.
I met her in 1986 when I was writing for a television series, “The New Gidget,” joining the legions who had warmed themselves at the Gidget fire through four presidential administrations. Although taking the job was a violation of my lifelong rule never to associate with anything that has the phrase “the new” in its title, I found myself with little choice. I was broke, jilted and living on macaroni and cheese.
As I soon found out, writing for this television series came with a full set of luggage and even a storage locker or two. “The New Gidget” was the product of a lineage with more “begats” than the Old Testament, sequel to a movie (“Gidget Goes to Rome”) that was a sequel to two or three others, all the way back to the first “Gidget,” a wacky movie starring Sandra Dee and her Cadillac-fin bazooms. This was itself an adaptation of the novel “Gidget: The Little Girl With the Big Ideas.” Written by her father, it was based on the real Gidget’s contemporaneous accounts of adventures on the beach in Malibu during the 1950s.
Gidget seemed uncomfortable, too. I wondered how she felt about this entire goofy enterprise. What could it have possibly been like to meet the people who made a living by spinning stories for a Hollywood character to whom she had permanently lent her name? She mustered a clipped greeting.
“Off the beach she’s known as Kathy Kohner Zuckerman,” the producer continued. “No, call me Gidget,” she said quickly, emphasizing the name, and promptly left the room. Someone attempted small talk. The producer apologized and backed out the door. “Maybe some other time,” he said.
Suddenly my job had taken on new dimensions, had even become interesting. Was Gidget of the Hebraic persuasion? I wondered, pondering both her maiden and married names. I soon learned that America’s most famous surfer girl was indeed Jewish. Not only that, but the queen of the California beach—long regarded by outsiders as the domain of beautiful blond boys and girls—had a family history that was shaped by a lunatic’s dream of Aryan perfection and then nurtured by the hallowed American right to pursue happiness.
I decided it was time to read the obscure novella written by Gidget’s father, Frederick Kohner. Strangely, there was not a single copy of it on the Columbia lot, the very studio that was in the never-ending process of building the Gidget pyramid. I spent weeks searching for the book. It seemed that the little-known surf saga was long out of print, a gold mine that had been stripped and boarded up a million years ago. The Los Angeles County Public Library did not have it. The Beverly Hills Public Library did not have it. Used bookstores in town did not have it, although they did stock other, lesser-known works by Frederick Kohner, such as “Kiki of Montparnasse” and “Cher Papa” (both tales of precocious teenage girls, and the latter a “Gidget” sequel). As the search became more arduous, my anticipation increased. Finally, I uncovered the long-lost message in a bottle—a tiny novel with yellowing pages that hadn’t been checked out in six years. It was hidden behind some other books by authors whose last names begin with K on the shelves of the Santa Monica library, just five blocks from the beach. I grabbed it from the receding surf of time. On its cover, a sea waif caught my gaze, inviting me to join her and two lanky surfers under the palm trees in the background.
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