The Buzz

A Man Called Tubesteak

A man called Tubesteak died the other week in Southern California. It was noted in passing by some media, including in a New York Times obituary. But The American Conservative offered up a particularly charming reminiscence by one Roger D. McGrath, identified only as the author of a book called Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier.

It seems McGrath spent his youth in the late 1950s hanging out with the surfers of Malibu, in Southern California. Though they weren’t conscious of it, they were creating a new beach culture that soon would capture the national imagination. And the leader of this unruly contingent was a young man, somewhat older and substantially bigger than the rest, named Terry Tracy, who fancied himself Malibu’s unchallenged Kahuna. 

He got the Tubesteak sobriquet when he brought hotdogs to a barbecue rather than the anticipated steaks. Chided mercilessly, he defended himself by calling his culinary contribution “tubesteaks.” It stuck. When a diminutive teeny-bopper named Kathy Kohner entered the scene looking for some tutelage in board handling, the boys attempted to shoo her away, whereupon Tubesteak appeared from his makeshift beach shack to inquire about the interloper’s identity.

“It’s a girl,” said one.

“It’s a midget,” said another.

Tubesteak promptly labeled her a “gidget.” The name stuck, and Tubesteak became her protector.

Turned out that Kathy’s father was a Hollywood writer named Frederick Kohner, and he took sufficient interest in his daughter’s new milieu to capture it in a 1957 book entitled Gidget. Intrigued editors of Life magazine sent a reporter and photographer to investigate. The resulting story prompted a Hollywood studio to pay $50,000 for the movie rights—a sufficient sum, as McGrath notes, to buy a Malibu beach home in those days.

Thus did Sandra Dee become Gidget (and later Sally Field in the TV version) and Cliff Robertson become Tubesteak. And thus did a little slice of Americana gain national attention. Tubesteak settled down in San Clemente, fathered seven children and surfed until his fiftieth birthday. His passing deserved notice, and it was smart of The American Conservative to share it.