California’s celebrated beach culture was dealt a blow Wednesday with the passing of 77-year-old surfer Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy, the man best known as the original Big Kahuna of Malibu. Tracy, the archetypal beach bum, lived on the Malibu shoreline for years, but his biggest contribution to American pop culture came by way of a nickname that he pegged to a young female surfer named Kathy Kohner. You know her as “Gidget.”
Tracy was born in 1935, and raised by his grandparents in the Wilshire District of Los Angeles after his parents split up in 1941. By 1950, at the age of 15, he had joined a growing number of teenagers dragging 11-foot boards made of redwood and pine into the surf.
It was there that he befriended another wayward kid by the name of Miki Dora, who also came from a broken home. Dora would go on to become surfing’s preeminent bad boy, but Tracy’s early attraction to him was simple. “Dora and I were friends because we were kindred spirits,” he told the Surfer’s Journal last year. “We were both raised by our grandmothers and the ocean.”
But while Dora would later become famous for ruling the waves, and becoming quite the con artist, Tubesteak’s domain was the beach. That’s where he built palm-frond shacks that he lived in for months. The first one had a hand written sign on it that read, “City Hall,” which is why he also became known as the Mayor of Malibu.
Of course, whatever jobs Tracy did hold at the time never lasted long, so he became the keeper and purveyor of surfing folklore, holding court around campfires at night, and lounging outside his hut all day along the tiny stretch of Malibu Beach known as The Pit.
That famous Malibu crew was immortilized by author and screen writer Frederick Khoner, Kathy’s father, who wrote the novel “Gidget” after hearing about her exploits with the boys of Malibu. Tubesteak was the mold for Gidget’s enduring character, “Kahoona.” More than 50 years later the book is still in print, and the shows and movies it spawned are ubiquitous.
Upon hearing the news of Tracy’s passing, I contacted renowned surf historian Matt Warshaw to gather some of his insights as to why Tubesteak such a beloved character among his peers. He wrote me back the following:
Tubesteak didn’t want to impress anybody. He didn’t want to make boards, or be a lifeguard, or ride big waves, or join a surf club. He didn’t want to convince non-surfers that surfing was a “legitimate” sport, to be taken seriously. Surfing, in Tubesteak’s view, was amazingly, perfectly, not serious.
He was the one who came up with the notion that having a good time on the beach wasn’t a byproduct of surfing, it was the whole deal. It was an idea that made him famous, first at Malibu, then up and down the West Coast, then all across the surf world. He rode waves, sure. But just one or two at a time, starting at the top of the point at Malibu and working his way toward the pier, gliding through a series of exaggerated comedic poses: Iron Cross to Stink-bug to Airplane. Then he’d step delicately off his board onto the sand, his incipient potbelly wet and gleaming, give a wave to everyone laughing on the beach, walk back to the driftwood shack he’d built earlier in the summer, pop open a beer and hold court.
Tubesteak often said that “Mickey ruled the surf” — referring to Mickey Dora, the infamous Black Knight of Malibu — “and I ruled the beach.” It was a grinning, mostly harmless kind of rule, though. Tubesteak could sling a put-down. He was outrageously elitist. But he wasn’t loud, or vulgar (“Tubesteak” moniker not withstanding), or mean-spirited. He never picked on the little guy — that was Dora’s specialty. Surfing was a game to Tubesteak, a party, a show, a performance. And to his eternal credit, he didn’t overdo it. In 1960, at age 25, married and raising the first of his seven kids, with Malibu now under siege by hordes of Gidget-era gremmmies, Tubesteak left the beach and got on with his life. Still smiling.
A great performer, a great exit.
Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy carved a lifestyle out of the sand and waves of Malibu during its fun-loving heyday of the 50s and 60s. His warm smile (top), comedic surf poses (center in the red trunks), and palm-frond beach housing helped shape the charm and character of the renowned California town long before the movie stars moved in. That’s Gidget herself coming out of the shack, Circa 1956, taken by F. Kohner on a brownie camera. And that’s Kohner with Tracy at the bottom more recently. Photos: Courtesy Tracy family archives, Encyclopedia of Surfing, and Tom Keck Surfing Heritage Foundation.