In the water, gender distinctions disappeared. Benson says she surfed like one of the boys. “I copied them. That was all I had.” Experiments were taking place on the waves back then, and Benson joined in. She tells, for instance, how word spread that instead of staying in one spot on the board, some surfers were moving around on it. “And so right away we started walking the nose. We didn’t get the picture about the timing — how it’s done today. We just started walking! Sometimes we’d walk right off the end, because we didn’t really know. But we learned.”
The nine- and ten-foot-long balsa boards were just beginning their evolution into shorter, more streamlined foam ones that were easier to maneuver. Benson says it also “was an era of stunt stuff.” Some riders would “do what they called a coffin,” she says. “They’d lay down on their backs and let the waves close over them. That sort of thing.”
By October 1959, another development had captured everyone’s imagination. That fall, the first surfing championships ever held in the United States were to take place in Huntington Beach. “It was a big deal,” she says, “the first contest for most of us. We all were ready for it, up and down the coast.” Back in those days, “You knew everybody. You knew what they drove. So when you passed them on 101, you knew who they were, from their car, and you’d wave and give a thumbs up. It was a real family.”
She went up on a Friday and stayed in the home of Robert August (a fine surfer, who later was immortalized in the movie Endless Summer and became a major surfboard manufacturer). The house was packed; surfers slept everywhere, and Benson remembers Robert’s father Blackie, another renowned surfer, bellowing before dawn, “Okay, all you guys! Get your asses up.” He didn’t realize that the 15-year-old girl was dozing among the bodies on the floor.
All eyes focused on Benson at the end of the weekend, however, when she captured the U.S. title in the women’s division. The victory emboldened her to set her sights on the upcoming Makaha International championships in Hawaii. The wall of her bedroom held a clipping about another Southern Californian named Marge Calhoun, who had won the women’s title there the year before. Benson asked surfboard manufacturer Dale Velzy “if there was any way that he could help me go.” Board makers were just beginning to send surfers to the world championships to gain the boards exposure in the photos and films that were becoming a staple of the subculture. Benson says Velzy responded that he would pay to send her to Hawaii if she could get herself back. “So my parents managed to get the other half of the ticket for me. Which was an effort.”
Benson’s high school teachers gave her permission to go, along with schoolwork to take along on the three-week sojourn, and a lifeguard friend arranged for her to stay with a Del Mar couple living on Kawela Bay. “It was like walking into paradise,” Benson remembers. Surfers filled the tiny beach cottages. “We were a little commune. When there was no surf, we would do everything from carving tikis to going up to the waterfalls.” Mostly, though, “I surfed my brains out.”
The youngest person ever to register in the five-year-old contest, Benson says the organizers “didn’t know whether to charge me or not — though of course they finally did.” The competition unfolded over two weekends. “They had big searchlights, and there was night surfing. No one got hurt, but when you think about it, someone could have, real easy. But it was spectacular. That water over there is such a turquoise blue, and so when the lights were on at night, it was just gorgeous.” In the women’s heats, good waves rolled Benson’s way, and she ripped into them with enough skill and assurance to be crowned the women’s world champion.
No money came with the title. But Benson did enjoy a taste of glory when she landed at Lindbergh Field, where a San Diego newspaper reporter joined her parents and friends in greeting her. When she had left for Hawaii, the front page of the sports section had featured a photograph of her performing a reverse kick-out, “And it said, ‘San Diego’s Gidget Eyes World Surfing Crown.’ They were very good to me,” Benson says.
More renown came in the following years, as she entered and won the next two U.S. championships. “And then I thought, ‘Well, I couldn’t possibly win it again,’ so I judged instead. But I wished that I was out there, so the next year I entered again.” She didn’t win in 1963 but took the title in 1964 and 1968. Her surfing prowess was also finding a much larger audience in movie theaters across America. This began when she was asked to surf for Deborah Walley, star of the 1961 film Gidget Goes Hawaiian. “They took me into the Royal Hawaiian beauty shop and dyed my hair so that it was the same color as hers,” Benson reminisces. A surfer named Mickey Munoz had doubled for Sandra Dee in the first Gidget movie. “He’s one of the smaller guys,” Benson explains. “They put a bra on him. We always kid about it. He’s older than I am, but he always says, ‘We’re the two Gidgets.’ ”
Benson also performed in three of the early-’60s “beach party” movies, including Muscle Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo. For this work, she earned $350 a week, plus an extra hundred dollars every time she got into the water — up to three or four times a day. “We were rich,” she exclaims. But the days were long, and the L.A.-area filming took place in the winter. “They used to put pancake makeup all over our bodies so that our tans would look the same” in the beach scenes. “That went on at six in the morning — with a cold sponge!” She confesses that the surfers “kind of made fun of the Hollywood set. They didn’t have a clue how to do a surfing movie.… It was our life, and we all thought it was kind of corny.” But the actors were friendly. Benson felt sad years later when she heard about Annette Funicello’s multiple sclerosis. “Annette was always nice,” she attests. Frankie Avalon was nice too. When Benson ran into him while serving as a United Airlines flight attendant, “He remembered me.”