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A Man Called Tubesteak

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.

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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.”

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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.

[1]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 [2].

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "A Man Called Tubesteak"

#1 Comment By Aaron in Israel On September 28, 2012 @ 12:33 am

That was a wonderful article. I hope there will be lots more by Roger McGrath here. I’ve always liked his articles in TAC and Chronicles.

This being The American Conservative, I wonder: Was there any “conservative” take on Southern California surfers at the time, in the 1950s?

Also, has anyone read the Gidget novel? I’m thinking of buying it, as a result of this article. The article says that the movie had the usual Hollywood stuff, but I’d think the novel would would be more “true to life,” because it’s a novel not a Hollywood movie and because it was written by Gidget’s father.

#2 Comment By Kevin Dunn On September 28, 2012 @ 10:50 am

“Tube-steak” is good Australian for Penis.

#3 Comment By c matt On September 28, 2012 @ 11:57 am

Having suffered through the movie several times (things we do to please our better half) it is fascinating to find out the real life story behind it. Thanks for the article!

#4 Comment By Joel Berlin On September 28, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

What do I have to do to get McGrath to write my epitaph.

#5 Comment By David Ryan On September 28, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

A very nice remembrance.

@Aaron, I think you can regard Bruce Brown’s “The Endless Summer” as a conservative work without inducing too much cognitive dissonance.

#6 Comment By Gilbert Jacobi On September 28, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

Roger,
Thank you for this wonderful tale, and I am sorry to hear of the death of your one-time protector. Your loyalty to his memory is admirable.

When I win the lottery (or maybe when I retire, but I’ll probably be about 80 then) I’m going to track you down, plead the brotherhood of ex-Marines, and try to get you to teach me to surf. It’s the physical activity that I never mastered that I continue to feel most drawn to. (Bicycle racing is another, but the time is long past when I could make a go of that.) I’ve gotten up on the board a few times, in tricky surf off the Michoacan coast, but could not stay on. As a Chicago street kid growing up in the years you began surfing, I remember how the coming of surf culture via movies and top-40 songs hit us with a monster wave of envy. But the experience of being up on a board, even ever so briefly, put an end to that and instilled in me a respect for the athleticism involved. Carry on.

#7 Comment By David Ryan On September 28, 2012 @ 6:45 pm

@Jacobi,

The problem you’re having is trying to learn to surf on lake mich. You need a good, gentle wave. San Onofre, Wikiki, Tourmoline, Ditch Plains, and a about 10 days to give to the learning.

(My father, a street kid from Jersey City taught himself to surf, and taught me too. If he can do it, so can you.)

#8 Comment By M_Young On September 28, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

“This being The American Conservative, I wonder: Was there any “conservative” take on Southern California surfers at the time, in the 1950s?”

That’s an interesting question, it might be worth a look through back issues of National Review.

You can almost see from this article that surfing culture is small-c conservative — attached to place (sometimes too much, as in ‘locals only’), self-organizing hierarchy in which both seniority and merit play a part. There is too a lot of continuity — the surf music culture continues in its niche, with newer bands coming up, sometimes consisting of sons and grandsons of older groups.Same with the actual watermen. Mickey Munoz is still out there, paddleboarding out of Dana Point. And Surfrider Foundation has been involved in many fights to conserve whats left of the SoCal coast — witness its fight against a toll road that would have seriously harmed the watershed that makes Son Onofre such a great surf spot.

Of note, there was a great Southswell rolling into Southern OC. today, with lots of folks — and lots of young girls, out at Doheny, just up the road from SC. A bit of synchronicity.

#9 Comment By Aaron in Israel On September 29, 2012 @ 4:21 am

Apologies in advance for this comment being way too long. I’ve kind of gone Gidget-crazy after reading this beautiful article. I watched the movie on YouTube – a nice little movie – and I’ve bought the novel. Here are some remarks on the topics of Gidget and Tubesteak, Endless Summer, and the conservative angle.

The LA Times obituary has another nice thing to say about Tracy, which also casts some more light on Malibu in 1956.

And unlike other Malibu regulars, [Tracy] was kind to newcomers.

“Some of the surfers would bury my surfboard or disconnect the distributor in my car,” recalled [“Gidget”] Kohner, who goes by her married name Zuckerman, “but Terry was always nice to me. I wanted to hang out at Tubesteak’s shack, not at the pit with the hard-core surfers.”

There were probably good and bad reasons for hostility to newcomers there, but I’m sure that Kohner knows those reasons as well as anyone, and she still made that comparison between Tracy and the “hard-core surfers” at the pit. So that’s very much to Tracy’s credit.

After watching Gidget I can see why surfers might not like it, but Gidget herself (Kohner) said that she loved it and saw it 52 times. I can’t imagine what it would be like for a teenage girl to watch her own life in a major Hollywood movie.
She said that Sandra Dee portrayed her pretty well, but not Sally Field in the TV series (too mainstream).

I’ve lived as a beach bum, and at the beach where I lived there was a “leader” who I now see was uncannily like Tubesteak/Kahuna. He was older than the rest of us, and consequently had a past, something most of us lacked. He lived in a shack he’d built (most of us lived in tents) that looked very much like Kahuna’s in the movie, though it was off the beach and semi-hidden. He would never have given orders as Tubesteak did in this article, but his authority was unmistakable. So I suspect that Tubesteak was not just an exceptional character, he was also representative of a type. It’s possible that this “leader” at our beach, given his age, might have even seen Gidget and consciously imitated Kahuna; but even if so, there’s only so much you can imitate.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen Endless Summer, but I think of it as a drop-out fantasy of back-to-the-garden. So I really don’t see it as conservative at all, not even in the pastoral tradition of the Southern Agrarians. Same with Tubesteak himself, whatever his personal virtues. That pastoral conservatism was always about the return of an entire polity or society to a golden age, not about drop-outs.

I remember my fellow beach bums as some of the most selfish, immature people I’ve ever known. (I’m sure that description includes myself at the time.) Watching a YouTube interview with Miki Dora reminds me of people I knew. For all the drop-out rejection of materialist society, with its echoes of the old right, I don’t see anything conservative about that scene, either in Malibu as described here or on the beach in Hawaii where I lived.

Conservatism is often confused with nostalgia. Everyone past a certain age has lost a world, whether it’s the Malibu of Gidget and Tubesteak (and McGrath) or the world of Gidget’s father, who wrote the book. (Kohner’s refugee parents named her after a relative who died in a concentration camp.) My guess is that National Review types in the 1950s, if they paid any attention to the stories about people like Tubesteak at all, would have seen him as symptomatic of the Decay of Modern Liberal Society – part of that history they were standing athwart. My point is simply that if the Malibu 1956 phenomenon wasn’t “conservative” then, it’s still not “conservative” now.

#10 Comment By Larry Misch On September 29, 2012 @ 6:35 am

Nice story. Know the places well. So that’s where “Gidget” came from.

When Nixon was president, he closed the beach at the south end of San Clemente behind his house. Had a Coast Guard Cutter offshore 24/7 to keep people away. Surfers, and, fishermen both didn’t like it one bit. When Nixon quit, the beach went back to the public and I went fishing there with a couple of friends. Lots of people on the beach and I swear Tip O’Neal walked out of Nixon’s back gate in a blue blazer and Bermuda shorts and hauled in a giant Chinese Croaker standing right next to us. Never said a word. He wasn’t their twenty minutes total.

I lived North of the pier overlooking the beach. Dolphins would often come around and were curious of people in the water. Came right up to me several times. I hear they’ve got the “red tide” down there now and the dolphins are gone. Man this story took me back. I could have ran into this “tube-steak” fellow a dozen times and never knew it. Frightening how time passes.

#11 Comment By David Ryan On September 29, 2012 @ 3:46 pm

The Endless Summer is not about dropping out, and the whole drop-out thing is some sort of wish-want fantasy that non-surfer seem prone to pasting over surfers and surf-culture without spending much time or critical effort on whether or not it’s true.

#12 Comment By David Ryan On September 29, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

Or said better by that great conservative thinker Noah Millman:

“Deep social structures that provide a sense of meaning to life are not imposed; they grow – that’s why we call them “organic.” If the problem is that these forms are unable to grow in the world we are building, or simply that they haven’t grown much yet because they haven’t had much time to do so, then the challenge isn’t to come up with a Big Idea that can provide us poor mortals with Grounding, but simply to make it, at the margins, easier for social structures that work for people to grow, and trust that they will grow, even if what grows doesn’t look precisely like what grew in earlier generations.”

#13 Comment By Russell Seitz On September 30, 2012 @ 12:38 am

For once we could use a word from Dana Rohrabacher,

#14 Comment By Aaron in Israel On September 30, 2012 @ 1:39 am

Like I said, it’s been a long time since I saw Endless Summer. “Drop-out” wasn’t the right word. But besides being a movie about surfing of course, Endless Summer is an escape fantasy. (A round-the-world trip is an escape.) My point still stands: as an edenic escape fantasy, it’s not at all a conservative movie.

Anyway, I wasn’t talking about surfer culture in general. I was mostly talking about Tubesteak, Gidget, and the Gidget phenomenon.

#15 Comment By Gilbert Jacobi On September 30, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

@David Ryan,
Good for you and your dad, and thanks for the encouragement. But no, I’m not trying to learn to surf on Lake Michigan. I know that some guys go there during storms, but I prefer to learn in more congenial conditions. The place I referred to was Los Troncones, in the state of Guerrero, Mexico.

#16 Comment By David Ryan On September 30, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

Gulf Coast. Just as bad (but not as cold.) Short period, no push. Like trying to ride a bike going really really slow; you fall over.

@Aaron, there’s a difference between an escape and a quest, between eden and new lands. Try this:

“There is a long-perpetuated myth that choosing one’s passion (waves) must come at an irreconcilable cost and requires the surfer to “drop out.” The myth is perpetuated by even the more lucid and perceptive of surf writers.

“One key to understanding why surfers were, and still are, cast as drop outs is this: the most itinerant members of the culture–uncoupled (usually) young males–were also the most visible during their free (non-surfing) time; they did a lot of conspicuous hanging out and looking fairly disengaged from the mainstream. But these “juvenile males” can be found anywhere–they are not unique to surf culture. The rest of the surfers, when they were not in the water, were busy at home or at work, raising their families, and went under the public radar so-to-speak. This is as true today as it was at the beginning for surfers in California.”

#17 Comment By Kelley Vlahos On September 30, 2012 @ 9:07 pm

Fantastic tribute, Mr. McGrath. Thank you for the journey! I, too, will be looking for the original Gidget novel.

#18 Comment By Aaron in Israel On October 1, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

David: OK, fine, Endless Summer was about a quest. I still don’t see anything specifically conservative in it.

As I told you before, I never said that surfers in general were drop-outs. I’ve never really surfed (I was very heavily into windsurfing for a while), but I’ve known many surfers as friends, roommates, and co-workers. Almost all had regular jobs, though often menial jobs so they could concentrate on surfing.

But Tracy/Tubesteak/Kahuna was undeniably a drop-out. I was talking about him. In the Gidget movie, Kahuna was portrayed as a sort of Rick Blaine on the beach, and Moondoggie was a wannabe Rick Blaine. I’m sure that was mostly Hollywood cliche, but I’m talking about the Gidget phenomenon as much as the reality. Again, nothing conservative about it, except the Hollywood ending when Kahuna tears down his shack and gets a job and Moondoggie decides to go back to college.

#19 Comment By David Ryan On October 1, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

@Aaron

Sorry if this comes across as peeved, but I am, well, a bit, peeved.

You don’t surf. You have known some surfers. You used to be pretty into windsurfing. You say you want to know about surfers of the 50s, but really you want to talk about a character in a Hollywood movie that captures your imagination. You speak with authority about something you know nothing about.

One last try, then I’ll drop it. Read Blackie August’s obit from the LA Times in 1991

[3]

Blackie August was Robert August’s father. Like his father, Robert August went on to lead a life that exemplified personal responsibility and productivity.

#20 Comment By Aaron in Israel On October 2, 2012 @ 1:45 am

David, I think you’ve misunderstood me. Of course I wasn’t at Malibu in 1956 (before I was born). If I’m not to go by accounts of Kohner, McGrath, and others who were there, what else is there to go by? I’m not claiming any more authority than that to talk about the surfers in Malibu in 1956.

When I say there was nothing specifically conservative about that scene or about Endless Summer or about surfing in general (as opposed to individual surfers), I don’t mean that as negative at all. Many of these people were very virtuous, apparently Tracy among them. But “conservative” is not at all a synonym for “virtuous” or “good.” Based on the link you posted, that seems to be your misunderstanding of my comments.

#21 Comment By Jennifer Tracy On October 4, 2012 @ 11:58 pm

Thank you Roger,for writing about my DAD I enjoyed reading your story. Jennifer Tracy

#22 Comment By phyllis tracy On October 5, 2012 @ 8:19 pm

Tubesteak did not “drop out” and most of the Malibu surfers of his time did not “drop out” either. As for Tubesteak, he made a conscious decision to live the life he wanted and not the life his family had designed for him.

#23 Comment By David Triche On June 11, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

Why did he stop surfing at the young age of 50?