One of University’s most idiosyncratic social trends from the late 1970s took a cue from Harvard stereotypes of Dartmouth frat life.
Following the release of the film Animal House, a wave of “toga parties” hit the Harvard Houses, transforming student revelry into costumed performance and showing that more than Harvard-issued mattresses could get away with being naked beneath their sheets.
The parties coincided with the tail end of a brief era when nearly all of the nation’s undergraduates were of drinking age and the College administration, according to students, regarded social activities with a fairly lenient eye.
“It was a huge phenomenon,” says Wilson H. Carroll ’81-82. “Everybody who went to the movie decided that toga parties must be a lot of fun. We did our best to be just like the guys in the movie.”
The National Lampoon, a comedy publication launched by alums of the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that occasionally used to publish a so-called humor magazine, released Animal House in July 1978. ’Poonsters drew on Harvard stereotypes of their Ivy rival to chronicle the drunken exploits of the fictitious Delta House Fraternity as it battles the school’s dean, who wants to expel the social club from the Dartmouth campus.
The producers of Animal House pushed the then-recently released film with an aggressive advertising strategy, offering more than $500-worth of merchandise to university students nationwide hosting toga parties. The production company found that successful parties were themselves the cheapest and most effective promotion for the film, Universal Studios spokesperson Larry Aiden said at the time.
And when the possibility of free beer from Anheuser-Busch was thrown into the bacchanalian mix, undergraduates throughout the College began to strip their beds and head to parties dressed in sheets and safety pins.
PARTY LIKE IT’S 1978
In April 1979, the Mass. drinking age rose from 18 to 20, followed by a sharp crackdown on drinking at Harvard Square establishments that many students had previously frequented.
First-years arriving at Harvard near the end of the decade anticipated this change and many, according to Carroll, were determined to take advantage of the younger drinking age as much as they could while it lasted.
“When I got to college, everyone was already drinking,” he explains. “There was also this sense of anticipation. We knew they were going to raise the drinking age.”
Free-flowing booze became the order of the day. And, according to alumni, students seized the Animal House caricatures of madcap parties as an ideal weekend-night magnet to Harvard’s Houses.
Steven V.R. Winthrop ’80 recalls the film’s “short-lived cult following” as a wave that swept most colleges—state schools and Ivy universities alike—in the months following its summer release.
Many students, he says, saw Animal House several times while it remained in the theaters, memorizing jokes quipped by John Belushi’s drunken character and bringing back to their colleges the idealized images of tipsy sheet-clad students chanting in unison.
When school started at Harvard in fall 1978, toga parties were a fresh fixation among undergraduates. An editorial appearing in The Crimson at the beginning of October described one party in the Yard occurring during Freshman Week.
“As I approached, the band of freshmen seemed to open up so that I could enter the tribal circle,” wrote T. Apollo Whitbread ’80. “As I penetrated the circle I saw six or seven leaders dressed in sheets jumping up and down in a frenzy, screaming in timely unison. ‘Toga! Toga! Toga!’ in between guzzles of beer.”
At the end of September, seven seniors in Leverett House organized an upperclass toga event and promised of revelry lasting until dawn. But the Saturday party, according to a Crimson article a few days later, was largely a bust, failing to live up to the Animal House model on which it had been based.
“Since no one was sufficiently familiar with the rites of Toga, participants behaved according to American ’70s custom,” wrote Crimson reporter J. Wyatt Emmerich ’80. “Occasionally someone would chase a friend through the crowd threatening affectionately to straighten her (his?) toga or die trying, but onlookers just smiled timidly and continued to sip their punch.”
‘THE EXTRA MILE’
By the time Harvard-Yale weekend rolled around, though, a group of students opened the doors to a toga party they hoped would put one of Harvard’s least popular Houses on the map. A party in South House, now part of Cabot, held in November 1978 carried the toga craze to its peak on campus, drawing throngs of students—and troupes of police officers—to the southern edge of the Quad for what became the most notorious weekend of the year.
“We had to go the extra mile to prove that it was okay to live at South House,” Carroll explains. “No one wanted to be there.”
In a period before the present housing lottery, students could submit their top three choices for upperclass housing in the spring of their first year. Nearly 80 percent were assigned to one of these Houses, according to Winthrop, a South House resident, but the remaining 20 percent of the first-years invariably ended up in the least coveted locations—and this generally meant the Quad.
He recalls knowing only about five students in South House who had initially wanted to live there. But as the possibility of joining the majority of the student body in one of the coveted River Houses faded, Winthrop and his housemates began devising plans to bring the rest of Harvard’s undergraduates to them.
“The attitude that a lot of us adopted was that if we’re here, we might as well make the most of it,” he says.
With Animal House released just a few months before and the toga craze sweeping the country, one route to popularity seemed obvious. Winthrop, who was then a House Committee chair, joined with a few of his colleagues to organize what they hoped would be Harvard’s biggest toga bash.
The planners left no stone unturned. They started a massive publicity campaign, putting up flyers with a picture of Belushi spilling mustard on himself on every available Harvard kiosk and at other local colleges. They hung “Toga at Soho” banners. They even hired a plane to fly an advertising banner over one of the Crimson’s home games.
Admission to the toga event would only be a dollar, they said, and proceeds would be donated to the Jimmy Fund for cancer research.
The party seemed to be on the fast track to success until the planners announced their hope to accept donations from private companies.
The College administration feared a slippery slope of corporate sponsorship making its way into Harvard, and forbade the party sponsors to accept the promotional material, along with several kegs of then-new Busch beer that the Anhauser-Busch company had offered in exchange for logo space on party banners.
With a contribution from House Master Warren E.C. Wacker, the planners brought beer nonetheless, and set up a toga-rental booth near the money-collection table by the door.
Giving their major investment in promotion, they hoped for a major turnout. In reality, the evening exceeded their expectations.
CRASHING THE PARTY
When the party opened at 9 p.m., it got off to a fine start.
“People were dancing up a storm,” says Marc J. Sobil ’80, the treasurer of South House, who was collecting dollars at the door.
A favorite D.J. spun music from Animal House over enormous subwoofers and speakers as sheet-clad guests showed up.
“For about the first half hour,” Winthrop remembers, “the party was fantastic.”
But by 9:30 p.m. or so, hopeful partygoers stirred up a commotion outside the House. There were more people outside trying to get in than there were inside at the party, Winthrop says. When Sobil stood in the doorway to block the inward flow, partiers began mounting the House walls and entering through the windows.
“I had never seen anything like this at Harvard, as far as the number if people going to a party,” Sobil says.
By 10 p.m.—when the Committee had collected $1,200 for the Jimmy fund, according to Sobil—Harvard University Police Department officers patrolling the area swarmed the already swamped south Quad. The party was officially over.
“I don’t recall our even contemplating the issue that we were going to be overcrowded,” Wilson says. “We thought the party would spill out onto the Quad, but it didn’t.”
But Sobil says he thinks the overflow was easily predictable, given the low entry charge.
“I have a personal opinion that it was overpromoted and undercharged,” he says.
In any case, the shutdown came as a blow to the party’s aspirations.
“Those of us on the inside who were enjoying the party were really bummed when it was shutdown.”
According to Carroll, though, its intent remained intact.
“We established the reputation that we wanted, which was if you want to have fun go to South House,” he says. “So I think we accomplished our mission by having our party shut down.”
Winthrop agrees. “It was a real badge of honor for those of us who were involved with it,” he says.
And although the toga craze died within months, alumni say the experience was worthwhile.
“It was a lot of fun,” Carroll remembers. “You always had music and dancing and there was just something about dressing up like a Roman senator that made everything seem all right.”
—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.