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.”