May 22, 2013
Posted on May 24, 2011
Yet apart from Gidget-related revenues (which are not particularly vast, since deals made in the 1950s are minuscule in today’s terms), it is not an empire in which Gidget or her family has a financial stake. Over the decades, it has floated hundreds of boats, boards and kayaks, providing robust incomes for an axis of surfers based primarily in Southern California. Some of them scoff at the Gidget phenomenon even as they ride its endless wave; others have no knowledge of the role Gidget and her father played in bringing surf culture to landlubbers.
It’s easy to see how Frederick Kohner became fascinated with the stories his daughter told him about the beach. He and his two brothers grew up in the Czechoslovakian spa town of Teplitz-Schorau (whose tainted waters Ibsen wrote about in his famous play “An Enemy of the People”). Their father Julius was the proprietor of the local movie house. In 1921, Paul, the eldest son, joined the early wave of Jewish émigrés and left for Hollywood. Within a few years he was a powerful agent with a list of clients that included Ernest Hemingway, Ingmar Bergman, Walter Huston and the reclusive writer B. Traven. Walter, the youngest, left for Vienna to study acting. Frederick, the middle son, embarked on a career as a screenwriter in Germany. He left in 1933, after attending the Berlin opening of one of his movies only to discover that Goebbels had ordered all Jewish credits removed from the film. Arriving in Los Angeles with a writing deal at Columbia Pictures, he settled at the beach with his wife, Franzie, and raised two daughters. A prolific screenwriter, he racked up credits that include “Never Wave at a WAC” with Rosalind Russell and “Mad About Music” with Deanna Durbin, which received a 1938 Academy Award nomination for best screenplay.
The sun cast its spell on the children of the Eastern European émigrés in Hollywood, many of whom came of age during the Fabulous Fifties. In 1956, Gidget began spending all of her free time at the beach—after school, after work, on weekends or when her family was visiting friends in the Malibu Colony. “My father and I would walk down [to the beach],” she said. “I would tell him about all of the surfers. I told him I wanted to write a book. He said, ‘Why don’t you tell me your stories and I’ll write it?’ I said OK.”
Gidget became her father’s muse, recounting tales of “bitchin’ surf,” giant “combers” that rolled in from Japan and escapes from a “boneyard” when surfers were caught between breaking waves. Frederick, fascinated, paid careful attention to his daughter’s first language (his was German). With her permission, he even listened in on her telephone conversations. A man possessed, he wrote the first novel in six weeks, weaving Gidget’s account and conversation into a charming story, published in 1957. It reflected the preoccupations of the era, from the bomb to Fats Domino. Yet one theme resounds above all others—Gidget’s passion for wave-riding.
At the end of this sweet summer’s tale, as a jealous Moondoggie confronts the Kahoona over what appears to be a scene of consummated passion, Gidget takes off on her board. It’s a classic day with bitchin’ surf; in fact, some big waves are rolling in. In an epic moment that has been lost in the countless “Gidget” remakes and retellings, in a moment that makes this a long-lost “Catcher in the Rye” for girls, Gidget ignores the warnings of her men and continues paddling out to sea. Defying social convention by not heading back to the sanctuary of land and middle-class life, uninterested in whether she can hook up with a beach bum or a fraternity boy, she just wants to surf, confident that she can ride with the best of ’em. “Shoot the curl,” the boys call, once she’s up and cruising. “Shoot it, Gidget.” And shoot it she does.
Then, long before the feminist wave of the following decades, comes the radical conclusion, one not conveyed in any of the ensuing “Gidget” manifestations. Gidget realizes that she was never in love with the Kahoona or Moondoggie—so much for boys and their predictable offerings. The objects of her affection all along were her surfboard and the sea.
His little surf saga completed, Frederick showed it to his brother Paul, who hated it and told him to find a new agent. Frederick went to the William Morris agency, a publishing deal was instantly hatched and the movie rights were purchased by Columbia for $50,000. Frederick gave Gidget 5 percent (an act that would be described nowadays as “buying the rights” to a subject’s story).
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