Surf’s Up?

Cliff Robertson as Malibu Beach surf bum ‘Kahuna’ in Gidget (1959). Novelist Frederick Kohner based the character on surfer Terry ‘Tubesteak’ Tracy.

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. He was 77.

Uninterested in a 9-to-5 routine, Mr. Tracy quit his job at his family’s savings and loan in the mid-1950s and built himself a shack on Malibu Beach. He used discarded lumber for the frame and palm fronds for the walls and furnished it with a couch without legs. For two summers the shack became the hub for a small tribe of young men who loved surfing — and beach parties — as much as he did. They called themselves the ”pit crew.”

As a surfer, Mr. Terry rode an old-fashioned wooden longboard and developed a move called the Royal Hawaiian, in which he would wait for a wave to come in and cut across less-experienced surfers with his arms spread wide to show who was king.

Steve Pezman, the publisher of The Surfer’s Journal, said of Mr. Tracy: ”His surfing was competent, but it wasn’t his surfing that made him distinctive. It was his personality.”

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.

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.”)

Mr. Tracy himself came to represent an idealized time when the beach and its denizens were untamed. He amplified that persona over the years by writing about the wild beach parties of his era. In an interview, Ms. Kohner, now Katherine Zuckerman, said Mr. Tracy ”personified the Big Kahuna’s mellow style and his love of the ocean.”

Terry Michael Tracy was born in Los Angeles on March 13, 1935, to Charlotte and Joseph Tracy. His father was an alcoholic, Phyllis Tracy said, and Terry’s parents divorced when he was 4. He was raised by an aunt in his grandparents’ home.

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.

Mr. Tracy attended Santa Monica City College but never got a degree.

Though his beach-bum image stayed with him, he had actually lived on the beach in Malibu for only two summers, until the authorities tore his shack down. He met Phyllis French when he was surfing on Hermosa Beach and living back at his grandparents’ home. They were married in 1957 and had seven children.

Mr. Tracy was paid to surf as an extra in the original ”Gidget” movie, and he earned an income for a while working in surf shops and appearing in surf-related commercials — including, in later years, one for Nike. But unable to make a career in the surfing industry, he turned to driving a truck delivering food to restaurants.

Published: August 27, 2012
The New York Times

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