If you were a guy growing up around 1960, you probably daydreamed at some point about how great it would be to trade places with The Kahuna, the world-wise, Bohemian beach bum portrayed by Cliff Robertson in the 1959 beach-movie classic Gidget.
As Malibu’s foremost surfer and hipster philosopher-king, Robertson’s Kahuna seemed almost too cool to be real. But in fact, the character was based upon a real person, Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy. And he was a friend of the real Gidget, Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, whose adventures inspired her screenwriter father to write a bestselling 1957 novel on which the movie was based.
Tracy, who died Aug. 22 at age 77 in San Clemente, Calif., remains a legend in the surfing subculture — not just because of his skill at riding the waves, but because he exemplified the laid-back, nonconformist surfer lifestyle that was just starting to emerge in southern California. Here are six interesting bits of the Tubesteak-Kahuna legend:
- In the 1959 movie, Robertson’s Kahuna is an Air Force combat veteran in his mid-thirties, who became fed up with following military rules and dropped out of society to travel the world in search of the perfect wave. In real life, Tracy opted for the beach lifestyle after being fired from his job at a Los Angeles insurance company in 1956.
- Tracy told surfing historian Duke Boyd that he really did let the real-life Gidget use his surfboard in exchange for a peanut-butter sandwich, the same story that’s in the book. She got a second ride in exchange for some Fig Newtons.
- Though he had a reputation for clowning on the board, Tracy actually was a formative influence on renowned surfer Kemp Aaberg, the co-star of the Bruce Brown documentary Slippery When Wet. Tracy reportedly tinkered with Aaberg’s stance, making him more maneuverable on Malibu’s right-handed waves.
- Terry told surfing historian Matt Warshaw that people started calling him Tubesteak because for a time he worked at a restaurant called Tube’s Steak and Lobster House. His wife, Phyllis, however, recalled that Malibu surfing legend Mickey Dora gave him the nickname, which was surfer lingo for showoff.
- According to Warshaw’s book The History of Surfing, Terry was a notorious lover of elaborate pranks. In 1957, for example, he rode a donkey from the the local lagoon to First Point, clad in a burlap sack, in parody of Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Spanish friar who founded California’s missions.
- In the movie version of events, Kahuna is a bachelor, and Gidget pines away for him before settling for the more age-appropriate Moondoggie. In real life, Tracy married Phyllis in the late 1950s. They had seven children, and Tracy taught all of them to surf.