Back in the 1980s, the hottest ticket in town for kids was an invite to The Mad Hatter, a birthday-party centre owned by future real-estate tycoon Harry Stinson. Former partygoers and Stinson himself reflect on the wildest haunt this city’s ever seen.
When people who grew up in Toronto in the ’80s talk about their childhoods, one thing inevitably comes up: The Mad Hatter. “Did you go there? Was it real?” And when people who were not children in 1980s Toronto overhear us talking about the place, they always think we’re making it up. Yet even those of us who went to parties at The Mad Hatter wonder if it wasn’t actually some collective hallucination.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party was a popular children’s birthday-party venue that was run out of several locations in North Toronto, including strip malls at Eglinton and Avenue Road, Bathurst and Eglinton, and Woodbine and Highway 7. Every weekend, a new group of unsuspecting middle-class parents would drop off their seven- to 12-year-olds for an hour or two of birthday revelry. Former partygoers recall those afternoons as replete with bodily endangerment, ritual humiliation and untold health-code violations, all presided over by a bunch of vaguely sociopathic teenagers. They were the most outrageous, most envied, most startlingly fun birthday parties a generation of kids ever attended.
With the exception of the patchwork of collected memories of children from that era, there is little remaining evidence that The Mad Hatter ever existed. Recently, I set out to prove that it did. I spoke to former party attendees. I found articles mentioning it in the Toronto Star, and talked with people who worked there at the time. Here’s what I learned: The Mad Hatter was created by a 22-year-old entrepreneur named Harry Stinson (pictured below) in the early ’70s. He ran the business until 1990, and then focused on the condo market, in time earning the designation “Toronto’s Donald Trump.”
The Mad Hatter folded in the early ’90s. Stinson, following some very public financial troubles, now develops condominiums in Hamilton and New York. I spoke with him, as well as former employees and patrons of The Mad Hatter, about their memories of the party venue. Let it be known once and for all: That magical place was for real.
“A friend invited me to his birthday party at The Mad Hatter when I was seven. And this was a pretty coveted thing. People in Grade Two were very excited about the prospect. It enjoyed some fame in the schoolyard as a very wild place to go.”—Amy Langstaff, 33
“It was so prestigious an invitation to get that it was just like you were completely insane with excitement. Also, The Mad Hatter was this opportunity to socialize on a boy level that I never really got anywhere else. I never had a tree-house fort. I never started a war with anybody. I was just a kid who read a lot of books. So The Mad Hatter was my Neverland.”—Matt Brown, 35
“I was desperate to get to a Mad Hatter party. They were legendary: Studio 54 for 12-year-olds.”—Hilary Doyle, 34
“We were picked up in the hearse. It was supposed to be a limo; it was definitely a hearse. It smelled really bad, and being Grade Six girls, we were like, ‘It smells like death. They’ve just converted this hearse from carting around dead people!’”—Erin Oke, 35
“[The red hearses] were great promotion, and they actually made the parties run efficiently, because the kids would all arrive in one block and they’d all leave in one block. When you’ve got 30 parties running in an afternoon, starting every 20 minutes, and the adults aren’t taking the arrival and departure times seriously, it can make for a very clogged system.”—Harry Stinson, 58
“It was sort of fairy tale–like. It was this magical underground kingdom where parents didn’t exist. So there was sort of a joy-fear split about that.”—Joshua Knelman, 35
“It was dank. It was a grim place. And it smelled so bad.”—Jesse Brown, 34
“It was not decorated. It was just like someone’s creepy basement. And it was kind of dreamlike in a way, ’cause it just didn’t feel right. There was something very off about the whole thing.”—Jeremy Freed, 29
“It was totally squalid. I remember graffiti on the walls, but not pretty graffiti, like they’d hired someone to do a mural. It was like you could take a marker and write on the walls.”—Erin Oke, 35
“It was raw brick, it was unfinished foam. And parents were never allowed down there, right? Which is crazy. Like, please drop off your children and no, you can’t actually come into the premises to even look around.”—Matt Brown, 35
“There was no natural light. It was like a bunker.”—Lisa Mesbur, 39
The naming ritual
“To start, the kids were arrayed around the table, and the party leader seemed very old—he was probably 16 or 17. We were all given names that involved swear words. The teenager was like, ‘What’s your name? Amy?’ So I, at age seven, became Amy Asswipe, and my friend whose party it was, he was Adam Asshole. And we were supposed to be referred to by those names the rest of the time.”—Amy Langstaff
“The name I ended up with was a fat joke: Jugular Jesse. And it stung. I remember this burning feeling, and as much righteous indignation as an eight-year-old can feel just looking at these counsellors, like, ‘You’re grown-ups, how can you let this happen?’”—Jesse Brown
The pillow fights
“There was a pillow ﬁght with these smelly, urine-stained, raw foam pillows in a completely black room with a strobe light. That’s burned into my memory, ’cause you would just see, like, in slo-mo, somebody coming at you, and you’d think you still had a few seconds, and suddenly, Pow! You’d just get this dense pillow across the head.”—Jesse Brown
“They made an offer to the birthday girl. They said, ‘Do you want to cut the cake or just eat it with your hands?’ And she was like, ‘I want it cut,’ but then everyone just dove in and threw it around, and she started crying ’cause she didn’t get any of her own birthday cake.”—Erin Oke
“When the birthday cake came, they smashed it in my face and I didn’t know that was going to happen. It sucked. It really sucked. It just made me feel stupid.”—Efrim Menuck (Godspeed You Black Emperor!/Thee Silver Mt. Zion), 41
“We were in cages. It was probably a big room subdivided by plywood walls, but the walls didn’t go all the way to the ceiling and I remember this chicken-wire mesh or something over top. There were these wooden benches that we sat on, and popcorn was strewn all over the ground, which was really sticky. And there was just a tray of hot dogs, like, boiled, with white buns and condiments. We were throwing them around. There was a party of boys next door and they somehow climbed up and they were looking down at our party and yelling obscenities, and, you know, showing us their penises.”—Erin Oke
“The hot-dog room was my nightmare. There was just a table and they’d throw the food down like we were animals, and then you’d get to throw it at each other. All of the condiments, too. There was no method.”—Miriam Verberg, 34
Next page: whipped-cream fights, shopping-cart bumper cars and supervisors named Boner