Real-life Gidget recalls life at OSU

2007-01-23T00:00:00Z Real-life Gidget recalls life at OSUBy Mary Ann Albright
Gazette-Times reporter
Corvallis Gazette Times

For a quintessential California girl accustomed to sun and surf, moving to Corvallis for college proved to be a culturally jarring, though ultimately rewarding, adventure.

Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, the basis for the Gidget character immortalized in books, movies and a television series, left behind her family and cute surfer boys like Moondoggie to study physical education at what was then Oregon State College in the late 1950s.

Known around campus as "That Gidget Girl," she experienced dorm life, babysat for author Bernard Malamud's kids and met professors who inspired her to become an English teacher.

"I was kind of a fish out of water in Corvallis. There was no surf. But I loved the seasons and the small-town atmosphere," said Zuckerman, now 66.

As a 15-year-old girl, Zuckerman got caught up in the surfing craze in Malibu, Calif. She infiltrated the beach crowd, mostly boys, and adopted the gang's culture and lingo. They called her "Gidget," short for "girl midget."

She convinced her father, screenwriter Frederick Kohner, to write a book about her beach adventures. "Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas" made waves when it hit the shelves in 1957. It was reissued in 2001.

The "Gidget" story traveled to Hollywood in 1959. In the movie adaptation, Sandra Dee played Gidget. (Although based on Zuckerman, the character's name is Frances Lawrence).

At the time, Zuckerman was beginning her second and final year of college in Corvallis. Soon after she transferred to California to finish her studies.

Zuckerman remembers seeing "Gidget" at the Whiteside Theatre.

"I thought, 'This is ridiculous. They made a movie of my life,' " she said.

"I saw the movie 52 times. I loved it, and I still love it."

She thought Dee played her fairly well, but was less pleased with Sally Field's performance as Gidget in the television series that aired in 1965. Field was too mainstream to portray a counter-culture girl, and the show didn't have enough surfing, Zuckerman said.

The "Gidget" movie also spawned sequels and made-for-TV films.

At Oregon State College, Zuckerman said she enjoyed an active social life.

"I was constantly in love with football players and English professors," she said.

She's still friends with her roommates from Cauthorn Hall, and has fond memories of grilled cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate at Wagner's, a now-defunct downtown restaurant.

She also often thinks of favorite professors, Ed McClanahan and Roy Carlson.

McClanahan, who left Oregon to teach at Stanford University, and later taught at the University of Montana and the University of Kentucky, warmly recalls the spunky student he and his wife, Kit, called "The Gidge."

He wrote a piece for Ace Weekly about Zuckerman that he plans to include in an upcoming book:

"The conservative (not to say stuffy) little campus was all a-buzz on registration day with the news that the infamous Gidget had enrolled at OSC. And the next thing I knew there she was, right there in the front row of my very first class, a drop-dead cute, Malibu-tanned, feisty-looking little Jewish beach bunny whose natural insouciance made her an enlivening presence amongst all the Presbyterian peaches-and-cream sorority girl home ec. majors," he wrote.

McClanahan said Zuckerman was a friend to him and Kit, and called her "a breath of fresh air."

"She was a kick. She was unusual, especially for OSC at the time. She was much more fun than most of the students. She was a live wire," he said.

While in Corvallis, Zuckerman babysat for Malamud's two children, Janna and Paul. Malamud was the award-winning author of "The Natural," "The Fixer" and "The Assistant." He taught in the university's English department during the 1950s.

Zuckerman regarded Malamud as a friend and father figure, and wondered if she could have been the inspiration for his book, "A New Life," which is based on the university and Corvallis in many aspects. When she wrote to him and asked, he said all the people in his books are products of his imagination, according to Zuckerman.

Janna Malamud Smith recently penned a memoir, "My Father Is a Book." In it, she briefly mentions Zuckerman.

She categorized "Gidget" as a tale of sexual escapades, and said Zuckerman would tell her father details about her liaisons to include in his book.

However, Zuckerman called Smith's book "unkind and inaccurate" in its description of her.

"That's so wrong. The 'Gidget' story is based on a girl going surfing in Malibu. There was no sex in the 'Gidget' novel, and that's what made it so charming and unique. It was about falling in love as a teenager and learning to surf," she said.

Zuckerman, who lives in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and still surfs on occasion, now travels the country for speaking engagements. She also works at Duke's Malibu Restaurant, where she's an Ambassador of Aloha, visiting with guests and spreading the surfer girl spirit.

Zuckerman is a grandmother now. She's married to Marvin Zuckerman.

Two-time Emmy-winning television segment producer Brian Gillogly filmed a documentary about her life, "Gidget: An Accidental Icon."

The hour-long movie debuted at the Malibu Celebration of Film festival in October. Gillogly hopes to start showing it at theaters and on television.

He met Zuckerman in 1980, while doing an article for Surfer Magazine, and was interested in her life's journey.

"It's an interesting story. It's about Hollywood, it's about surfing. It's an interesting look at California culture and history," he said.

For the film, Gillogly interviewed surfing, film and television veterans, as well as young girls inspired by Zuckerman.

"To a great degree, it's a woman's story, rising above adversity. She wasn't afraid to break into a man's world. It's an inspiring story," he said.

On the Net: Ed McClanahan's piece about Zuckerman can be found on his Web site at www.edmcclanahan.com.

Mary Ann Albright covers higher education. She can be reached at maryann.albright@lee.net or 758-9518.

Copyright 2015 Corvallis Gazette Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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