The triple-dog dare: How 'A Christmas Story' pulled off its most memorable scene

Joal Ryan
Scott Schwartz and Peter Billingsley in <em>A Christmas Story</em>. (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Scott Schwartz and Peter Billingsley in A Christmas Story. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Yes, it really was cold. Yes, it really was a flagpole. And, no, you shouldn’t try the trick at home.

If Scott Schwartz sounds well-rehearsed in telling the story behind the story of his famous tongue-stuck-to-the-frozen-flagpole scene from A Christmas Story, then that’s probably because he is.

“I get calls every year from [reporters], ‘Hey, we got a kid that stuck his tongue to a pole. Can you give us a comment?’” Schwartz says. “I go, ‘Yeah, he’s a schmuck.’” [Editor’s note: Sure enough, another kid got his tongue stuck to a frozen pole this year.]

Schwartz, now 50, played a schmuck by the name of Flick in A Christmas Story, the nostalgic, 1940s-set film that, while briefly a No. 1 box-office hit, made its Yuletide reputation as an 24-hour-marathon cable offering.

Looking back, Schwartz estimates he worked for all of about six weeks on the movie, which was shot in the winter of 1983. Age 14 at the time (but looking years younger), Schwartz came to the set a veteran actor, with a Richard Pryor movie, 1982’s The Toy, on his résumé.

Cast as Flick, loyal friend of aspiring Red Ryder BB-gun owner Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), Schwartz traveled with the production to the now-closed Victoria School, in Ontario, Canada. The classroom scenes were shot there. So was the flagpole scene.

If you’ve gotten this far — in this article, or in this century — without knowing what the flagpole scene is, then you need to get yourself in front of a screen that’s screening A Christmas Story.

Watch the full scene:

In a movie filled with oft-referenced moments — the leg lamp, the “You’ll shoot your eye out!” taunt, the pink bunny outfit — the flagpole scene just might reign supreme. It’s a spot-on distillation of schoolyard politics, an example of how things get out of hand quickly and painfully: Flick, on the “triple-dog dare” of a character named Schwartz (played by R.D. Robb), sticks his tongue to the school’s icy flagpole.

Flick’s tongue doesn’t get unstuck until the fire and police departments intervene.

“Was it painful? No,” Scott Schwartz says, asking and answering the anticipated question unprompted.

The actor didn’t suffer because he, unlike Flick, had a prop department looking out for him.

Flick accepts the famous “triple-dog dare” while Ralphie looks on. (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Flick accepts the famous “triple-dog dare” while Ralphie looks on. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

“They made a piece of plastic that they slid over [the flagpole],” he says. “It had a little hole in it with a suction tube that went into the snow — you couldn’t see it, it was a little motor, like a small vacuum cleaner, [and] the hole-opening [in the plastic] was about the size of your pinky nail. So when you put your tongue there or finger or whatever, it just stuck.”

“I can make the sound effect,” Schwartz adds, “but you can’t write that.”

Sometimes, Schwartz recounts, he tugged too hard and his tongue came right off. But, again, there was no pain. The weather conditions were another matter.

Flick’s classmates look on in horror at his icy predicament. (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Flick’s classmates look on in horror at his icy predicament. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

“The worst part about it was just the bitter, bitter cold that we had,” Schwartz says. “We were two days out there, and it was between 20 and 25 below zero with the wind chill.”

From those two days, Schwartz got his piece of movie immortality. His bronze likeness — in tongue-to-flagpole form — has stood in Hammond, Ind., hometown of A Christmas Story author and narrator Jean Shepherd, since 2013.

Scott Schwartz at the unveiling of his Christmas Story statue. (Photo: Courtesy of Sculpture Resource)

And he once watched basketball great Michael Jordan re-create the scene in the Chicago Bulls locker room.

“He was perfect. He was dead-on,” Schwartz says of Jordan. “I was just beyond elated. I was lit up like a Christmas tree inside.”

Sounds about right.

[A version of this story ran in December 2015.]

Watch: Why A Christmas Story is a terrible Christmas movie:

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