I started surfing at Malibu in the late 1950s. I was only a kid, not yet a teenager. In the vernacular of the surf culture of the day, I was a gremmie. I had to wait my turn in the lineup out on the point. Good set waves were not for me. The older guys had dibs on those. The leftovers from the sets or the smaller waves that rolled through between the sets were the best I could hope for. Even then, if an older guy wanted one of those, it was tough toenails for me. Resigned to my lowly status, I had been waiting for a wave of my own for quite some time when a small two-footer humped up just outside of where I was straddling my board. “This is mine,” I thought. Just then a really old guy, maybe 20, began paddling for it—but a powerful voice bellowed, “Let the gremmie have it.” The 20-year-old immediately stopped paddling—as if ordered by a top-kick sergeant—and I stroked into the wave.
The voice that bellowed belonged to Terry Tracy, known to all as Tubesteak. Although not the best surfer at Malibu, he was indisputably the king of the beach. His physical stature, enormous strength, booming voice, wit, and age made him a natural for leadership. No one was about to challenge him. Moreover, he actually lived right on the sand of the famed surfing point in a shack that he had built without permission of any kind.
Kemp Aaberg, an older brother of my best friend, Denny, began surfing at Malibu during the summer of 1956. Kemp would become one of the stars of several of Bruce Brown’s surfing movies. Kemp told me that he was “hanging around the entrance to Tubesteak’s shack after a good go-out on the waves. Everyone was laughing, talking, and drying out in the sun. Suddenly, the damp Army blanket that served as the door to the palm-frond shack was swept aside and there stood the Tube, observing his flock. Then, in a very loud, deep, authoritative voice, he proclaimed, ‘I AM THE KAHUNA.’ Everyone had a great laugh, and we all knew from that day on who our leader was at Malibu!”
Terry Tracy was born in Los Angeles in 1935 and grew up attending Catholic schools, including all-boys Cathedral High, operated by the Christian Brothers. He was an outstanding football player but the siren call of waves had begun to interfere with both his interscholastic sports and his studies by the time he was 15. He began spending more and more time surfing at San Onofre. Upon graduation in 1953 he went to Santa Monica City College, playing football and occasionally studying. After a year he called it quits. He went to work for a Los Angeles Spring Street savings and loan run by an aunt. He lasted two years before quitting in 1956.
Exchanging his suit and tie for a pair of trunks, he headed up to Malibu. He fell in love with the waves that broke along the rock-reefed point on the west side of the Malibu Pier. He decided to stay. Right there on the sand. He built a shack out of lumber and palm fronds, just inland from the high-tide line. He furnished the interior with a small stove, a couch, a mattress, milk crates, beach towels, and posters. Tracy built a new, sturdier shack on a raised platform in 1957 and added to his furnishings. Some surfers thought he had sold out and was going upscale.
Shortly after Tracy arrived at Malibu, he acquired the nickname Tubesteak. Different versions for the origins of his sobriquet abound. He himself had two or three explanations, including having worked for a restaurant called Tubesteak’s. The story that had the most currency when I started surfing at Malibu said that Tracy showed up at a barbeque with hotdogs instead of the steaks he had promised. When someone complained, Tracy, without batting an eye and in high dudgeon, said, “There are T-bone steaks, Porterhouse steaks, rib-eye steaks … these are tube steaks.” Everyone collapsed in laughter. From then on Terry Tracy was known as Tubesteak. I suspect there were many surfers who never knew his real name.
When the Tube hit the waves it was on a 10’6” balsa board. Even when polyurethane foam boards made their appearance in 1958, he stuck to his old board. He didn’t maneuver his board with exceptional quickness or agility but would drop down the face of a wave, make a sweeping turn, trim up, and come roaring down the line. No one would dare drop in on him. He was Tubesteak, the Kahuna. But also he and his board racing down a wave were like a battleship coming at you, and it was up to you to avoid a collision. When he got a good wave that broke all the way from the point into the cove—and occasionally to the pier—he’d strike a pose. People on the beach would laugh and applaud.
Tubesteak probably would have remained an obscure figure, known only to us local surfers, were it not for an Austrian immigrant and Hollywood screenwriter, Frederick Kohner, and his daughter, Kathy. The Kohners lived in Brentwood but enjoyed the beach at Malibu. By the time Kathy was 15 she was captivated by the surfers and surfing. Cute and pert, and maybe five feet tall and 95 pounds, she decided she’d walk down the beach to Tubesteak’s shack and see if she could convince one of the surfers there to take her out on a board. Flat rejection is what she got. She was told to move on. Not willing to take no for an answer she told one of the surfers that she couldn’t be bothering him by just sitting there. “Yeah?” he replied. “You’re still breathing.”
Just then Tubesteak emerged from his shack and the Kahuna surveyed his domain. What was this little thing amongst his surfing novitiates? It’s a girl, said one of the guys. No it’s a midget, said another. Tubesteak put an end to the debate, declaring Kathy a Gidget, half girl and half midget. As with Tubesteak’s own nickname there are other versions to this story but from that time on, the Tube became Kathy’s protector. Gidget bought her first surfboard from Mike Doyle for $30. Paddling and surfing on it soon became easier for the Gidge than carrying it from a parked car on the Coast Highway to the water. The balsa boards of that era were double the weight of boards of a similar size today.
Riding waves at Malibu gave Gidget a bad case of surf stoke. She’d come home at night talking excitedly about nothing but surfing and all the characters at the beach, starting with Tubesteak, the Kahuna. Soon her father was taking notes. The daily tales and the characters were too colorful to pass up. Within six weeks he had a completed manuscript. Gidget was published in 1957 and quickly became a bestseller. Life was intrigued. Could this lifestyle and these characters be for real? The magazine sent a reporter and a photographer to Malibu. There was Tubesteak, his shack, and all the guys on the beach. Hollywood was also intrigued. Kohner was paid $50,000 and 5 percent of the gross for the movie rights. In 1957, $50,000 bought a house on the beach in Malibu.
The movie “Gidget” was released in 1959. Cliff Robertson ably played Tubesteak, although physically Dan Blocker would have been more appropriate. Surfers were not entirely pleased with the movie. It had plenty of hokey Hollywood in it and no one liked James Darren, except a million teenage girls. He didn’t look the part of Moondoggie, couldn’t begin to surf, and was apprehensive about even going in the water. Several of our local guys worked in the movie, though. Doug McClure, a budding actor, a real surfer, and a friend of my older brother’s, played the part of Waikiki, and others, including Mickey Munoz, worked as stunt doubles. Small and wiry, Munoz put on a blond wig and a girl’s bathing suit and surfed for Sandra Dee, who played Gidget.
Tubesteak didn’t directly profit from the movie, but his reputation as the Kahuna of Malibu now spread far and wide. He was asked by different shapers to represent their surfboards and paid to appear at surf expos and in surfing movies. In the spring of 1960 Denny Aaberg and I, and many others from Pacific Palisades and Malibu, went to the Surf-O-Rama expo at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Tubesteak was there representing Dewey Weber surfboards. He was standing in front of Dewey’s exhibit, looking larger than life as usual and wearing a Hawaiian shirt that could have covered a bear. I had been saving my paper route money for six months to buy a new board. The Tube made me a deal that later caused Dewey to blanch. Dewey thought about backing out of it—I was but 13 and couldn’t have held him to a contract—but with a little Tubesteak influence he stuck to it.
By 1960 the Tube was married to Phyllis, a lovely girl who was devoted to the Kahuna. They would soon buy a house in San Clemente and settle into middle-class life, including filling their home with seven children. Tubesteak continued to surf, now back at his original spot of San Onofre, until he hit 50. From then on he mostly sat on the beach, regaling all with his wonderful tales of the golden years at Malibu. He died on August 22 at the age of 77.
Roger D. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier.