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August 28, 2012

I don’t really know much about surfer Terry Tracy, who passed away last week, but I did learn that his nickname was Tubesteak. And that’s enough for me.

In 1956, Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy, freshly fired from his job at a downtown insurance company, bid goodbye to the 9-to-5 life and headed for the Malibu shore, where he built himself a shack out of wood scraps and palm fronds and sailed into surfing history. 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.

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. 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.

“Surfing didn’t have a sense of humor until Terry came along,” Warshaw said this week. “What Terry recognized was that having a good time was the point, not the byproduct, of surfing at the beach. He was the guy who was having the best time.”

Rest in peace, Tubesteak.

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