As you might imagine, there were proxies involved: Santa’s interests were represented by Santa’s Workshop, North Pole, N.Y. (in Wilmington), and young Michael of Saratoga Springs was spoken for by his parents. Attorneys handled the court proceedings on behalf of both parties.
The brainchild of Julian Reiss, Santa’s Workshop opened in 1949, and today is in its 69th season. As a theme park, it quickly became wildly popular. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise, covering the park’s 50th anniversary in 1998, recalled, “On the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, 1951, the Workshop hit its peak: there were 14,000 paid admissions to the Workshop — and children were admitted free!”
If you’ve ever been there, one of the most popular things to do is pose for pictures while touching, leaning on, or standing next to the actual North Pole. For many, no visit was complete without touching it, something untold thousands had done during the first few years of operations.
But on August 2, 1953, the practice took a dark turn. The pole consisted of a thick layer of ice encasing a refrigerated iron pipe, but on this particular day it had been defrosted. As the re-freezing process began, young Michael, visiting the park with his mother, reached out, touched the metal, and became instantly stuck to it.
An older child (like the one some of you are envisioning from A Christmas Story — Flick, who on a dare got his tongue stuck to the flagpole) might become frightened, but a five-year-old, with no understanding of what was happening to him, would panic, which Michael did. While screaming and attempting to free himself, the poor boy’s hands, face, and tongue became frozen to the pole. The frantic, frightening situation ended when park personnel managed to free him, but Michael’s injuries became the subject of a negligence lawsuit filed by his parents.
The official complaint charged that no guards monitored the pole during the defrosting process, and that signs invited children to touch the North Pole, which their son did. As a result, according to claims made in court, Michael suffered physical injuries that were painful and lasting: a small scar above one eye; frost burns to the face, tongue, and hand; and the inability to discern between sweet and sour tastes. In addition, he often cried spontaneously after the incident and was troubled by nightmares.
Sixteen months after the ordeal, a judge in Ballston Spa ordered Santa’s Workshop to pay the boy’s parents $1,000 (equal to about $9,100 in 2018).
Despite some negative publicity, the park continued to flourish. As noted in the same Adirondack Daily Enterprise article cited above, Santa’s Workshop hosted more than 10 million visitors during its first 50 years. I’m pleased to say I was one of them.
Photos: the North Pole at Santa’s Workshop (the North Pole website); headline (Schenectady Gazette, 1954)