Gidget and her friends

In the NYT yesterday, an obit (by Leslie Kaufman) for “Tubesteak Tracy”:

Terry Tracy, Model for the Big Kahuna, Dies at 77

Terry Tracy, who as an easygoing, fun-loving surfer inspired the “Gidget” movies and television series and helped make surfing an international sport — in the process becoming the embodiment of the cool alternative lifestyle of sunglass-wearing beach bums — died on Wednesday at his home in San Clemente, Calif.

… One day a 15-year-old girl just over five feet tall named Katherine Kohner wandered up to Mr. Tracy while he was living on the beach. Soon he gave her the nickname Gidget, a hybrid of girl and midget.

Portmanteaus in the news.

The story continues with more names:

Ms. Kohner began hanging out with Mr. Tracy and the beach crew and told her father, the screenwriter Frederick Kohner, all about them. Her stories inspired him to write a novel, “Gidget: The Little Girl With Big Ideas” (1957).  It was a sensation, and it led to more books, a photo spread in Life magazine, a 1959 movie starring Sandra Dee and a television series in the mid-1960s with Sally Field in the title role. In the movie, a character called the Big Kahuna, played by Cliff Robertson, was based on Mr. Tracy. (Phyllis Tracy said her husband hated Mr. Robertson’s performance because “he thought he got the California lifestyle wrong.”)

… Growing up in Los Angeles, Mr. Tracy got into surfing at age 15, before it was widely popular. Miki Dora, a friend who became a renowned surfer, gave Mr. Tracy the name Tubesteak, another word for hot dog. It stuck, although his wife just called him Tube.

A still from the first Gidget movie:

From left to right: Sandra Dee as Gidget, James Darren as Moondoggie, and Cliff Robertson as The (Big) Kahuna, in the first incarnation of Gidget:

Gidget is a 1959 Columbia Pictures CinemaScope feature film. It stars Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson [as The Kahuna], and James Darren [as Moondoggie; he’s fond of surfing by moonlight] in a story about a teenager’s initiation into the California surf culture and her affiliated romance with a young surfer.

Gidget is credited by numerous sources … as being the single main influence to bring surfing and the surfing subculture into the American mainstream.

(It’s not really fair to tax Robertson with getting the California lifestyle wrong, when that was the responsibility of the script writers and the director.)

Now, Sally Field in the tv version:

(Other actresses played the part in later films in the Gidget series.)

So far, an account of the names Gidget and Moondoggie, and a reference to tubesteak ‘hot dog’ (as a nickname for Tracy). On this last, there’s a complex set of senses of hot dog involved here, most going back to the late 19th century: the sausage; the slang interjection ‘expressing delight or strong approval’ (OED3); and the slang (originally and chiefly U.S.) for:

A flashy, ostentatiously successful person; a show-off. In later use also: a person proficient at a sport, etc.; esp. one who gives a flamboyant display of his or her skill. (OED3)

(a sense that became especially prominent in skiing and surfing). Later — OED3 has it first in 1963 — came the specifically surfing use for ‘a large surfboard, somewhat smaller than a ‘gun’ ‘. The name Tubesteak picks up some of these associations. It might also have associations to the phallic slang tube steak, which I discussed here as a possibly unfortunate name for a hot-dog stand, noting:

Here the problem is yet another metaphorical extension of a word referring to a hot dog to use in reference to the penis; see the wiener discussion here.

On to Kahuna. From Wikipedia:

Kahuna is a Hawaiian word, defined in the Pukui & Elbert (1986) [Hawaiian Dictionary] as a “priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession”.

The word was extended by surfers to ‘the god of surfing’ (OED2’s first cite for it in this sense is from 1962) and then, shorn of religious associations, was picked up by Hawaiian surfers for experts in the sport and widely disseminated via the 1959 Gidget movie.

So: the fictional characters Gidget, Moondoggie, and The Big Kahuna, plus Tubesteak Tracy. Surf’s up!


4 Responses to “Gidget and her friends”

  1. H. S. Gudnason Says:

    And, here’s a lovely bit of trivia. The real Gidget’s father was a German immigrant named Frederick Kohner. His brother Paul was a Hollywood producer, who was married to Lupita Tovar, who played Mina Harker in the Spanish version of Dracula, that was filmed evenings while Tod Browning filmed Lugosi during the day. Paul and Lupita’s daughter (so Gidget’s cousin), Susan, played the black daughter in the remake of Imitation of Life. (She was, you’ll note, the daughter of a European and a Mexican, but this was Hollywood in the 50s.) She married the fashion designer John Weitz, and *their* sons are Paul and Chris Weitz, the directors.

  2. V.E.G. Says:

    Yes, Virginia, there is a real Gidget.

  3. V.E.G. Says:

    They made the sitcom, “Gidget,” but it failed after a year. It possibly does hold a candle to Sandra Dee.

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