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Mythical Surf Figure ‘The Big Kahuna’ Dies — Turns Out He Was a Real Person; Also, He Gave an Iconic Early TV Character Her Name

Aug 27, 2012  •  Post A Comment

A real-life surf icon who became the stuff of legends and was the model for the ubiquitous “Big Kahuna” seen in the “Gidget” movies and TV show and other productions has died. Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy, 77, died Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, at his home in San Clemente, Calif., of complications from diabetes, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Tracy became an icon of surf lore by dropping out from the 9-to-5 life back in 1956 and building a shack in Malibu out of palm fronds and wood scraps, the story goes. He went on to become the model for "the Big Kahuna."

The Times reports: “He was, according to surfing historian Matt Warshaw, a decent surfer, but his ticket to glory wasn’t what he did on a board: It was the aesthetic he embraced. Tracy, better known by the nickname ‘Tubesteak,’ was the personification of the rebellious surf subculture that emerged in California in the late 1950s. He was an anti-authoritarian sage in Wayfarer shades and Madras shorts who made bumming on the beach the essence of cool and an irresistible draw for a girl he called Gidget.”

Gidget was in reality a teenager named Kathy Kohner who stopped by Tracy’s place in the hopes of borrowing a surfboard. Her small stature was reflected in a word combining “girl” and “midget,” and her screenwriter dad, Frederick Kohner, eventually turned her beach stories into a novel, “Gidget, the Little Girl With Big Ideas.” Then came the 1959 movie — with Sandra Dee as Gidget and Cliff Robertson as the Big Kahuna — followed by the sequels (“Gidget Goes Hawaiian,” etc.) and inevitably, the 1960s TV series, where Sally Field took over as Gidget.

Whether Tracy was in fact the person who first came up with the name Gidget is a matter of some dispute, but he stuck to the story throughout his life and the “real” Gidget, Kathy Kohner, can’t remember.

Said Kohner: "I didn’t write it down in my diary, so it’s up for grabs." But she recalled Tracy fondly last week, noting that unlike some surfers — who have a reputation for being territorial — he was friendly to outsiders. "Some of the surfers would bury my surfboard or disconnect the distributor in my car," said Kohner, whose name is now Kathy Zuckerman. "But Terry was always nice to me. I wanted to hang out at Tubesteak’s shack, not at the pit with the hard-core surfers."

terry-tracy-big-kahuna.jpgTerry “Tubesteak” Tracy

One Comment

  1. Got a signed surfing paper back in the late 90’s in Tucson at the McDonalds car show at Catalina Highway. He liked my Studebaker truck and In and Out T shirt.

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