Terry Tracy moved to the beach in Malibu in 1956, built a shack and became "the personification of the rebellious surf subculture that emerged in California in the late 1950s." He may — or may not — have also been the first surfer to call beach girl Kathy Kohner "Gidget." From Elaine Woo's LA Times obituary tonight:
Although he hadn't ridden the waves in decades, he was revered as an elder statesman of the surfing world, known in later years for the articles he wrote about the crazy parties and beach pranks that became, Surfer's Journal publisher Steve Pezman wrote this week in a tribute, "anthems to true surfer style."
The burly bohemian was holding court outside his Malibu shack in the summer of '56 when a petite teenager named Kathy Kohner wandered by to borrow a surfboard. Five feet tall and 95 pounds, she reminded Tracy of a teensy girl he once met who had been dubbed Gidget, a mash up of "girl" and "midget." Inspired by the memory, Tracy later said, he called Kohner that — and the name stuck.
When she told her screenwriter father, Frederick Kohner, about the characters she met on the beach, he turned her stories into a novel, "Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas," published in 1957.
With the release of the 1959 movie, which starred Sandra Dee as the title character and featured Cliff Robertson as a Tracy-inspired shack-dweller named the Big Kahuna, the surfer lifestyle blazed by Tracy and others exploded into popular culture, giving rise to a slew of sequels ("Gidget Goes Hawaiian," "Gidget Goes to Rome"), musical groups like the Beach Boys, and a popular 1960s sitcom starring Sally Fields as the fun-and-sun-loving pixie.
Although Tracy claimed the distinction, Kohner isn't sure he was the first surfer to call her Gidget. "I didn't write it down in my diary, so it's up for grabs," she said Wednesday.
Tracy died Wednesday at home in San Clemente of complications of diabetes. He was 77. His wife said Tracy got the nickname Tubesteak from surfing legend Mickey Dora, but let's just all agree that the explanations for the name given in the paper may not fully exhaust the possibilities.
From the tribute posted at Surfline.com
Tracy was born and raised in Los Angeles and learned to surf in 1950 when he was 15 years old. He was quickly hooked and became a fixture at Malibu, living on the beach in "the pit" for extended periods of time during the summer. He avoided work whenever possible, building a beach shack at First Point with palm fronds collected from up Malibu Creek.
And the nickname? Surf historian Matt Warshaw interviewed Tubesteak for his book Above The Roar: 50 Surfer Interviews: "One summer I was really broke," Tracey told Warshaw. "So I got a job across the street, right next to the Malibu Inn, at a place called Tube's Steak and Lobster House. And people would say to me, 'Hey, you still at Tube's Steak?' Then it just went to Tubesteak. But people have always been confused about what it meant. A lot of people think that Tubesteak meant... ah, some kind of cylindrical piece of meat."
In 2008 Tubesteak and wife Phyllis celebrated 50 years of marriage.
Photo of Tracy and Kathy Kohner Zuckerman in 1997 by Tom Keck