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.
“The teenagers who were supervising this thing did not seem like the wholesome teenagers who were our camp counsellors.”—Amy Langstaff
“The teenage guy who led us around—I guess each party was assigned a teenager—his name was Boner. Or he called himself Boner. I think even in Grade Six, we thought that was kind of not super-appropriate.”—Erin Oke
“I know many people who are notable citizens in the Toronto community who either had their parties there or worked there as a party supervisor, and some of them will not admit it.”—Harry Stinson
The whipped-cream fight
“It was probably just a gallon of whipped cream, but it seemed like it was the size of an oil drum, and the room literally had four inches of dry, clotted whipped cream on all the walls. They just opened this bucket up and they’d be like, ‘Go for it.’ So you’d just reach in and wallop each other, which is crazy! Afterwards, I think they just hosed you down, prison-style.”—Matt Brown
“I don’t think the water they hosed you down with was warm; it was cold. It does sound like I’m describing this weird torture chamber. And I’m sure for some kids it was.”—Erin Oke
“First you had to change into your swimsuit in this weird, creepy change room. But it just seemed like an anti-climax. Everybody had been building up this part of the experience and when you got there it was, like, This is just a bunch of whipped cream. And we’re supposed to throw it at each other?”—Jeremy Freed
The shopping carts
“In retrospect, I can’t believe how totally dangerous they were—the shopping-cart bumper cars. One person would push a shopping cart while another kid sat in it…very treacherous. At my party we just went through a random door—I don’t think we were being supervised by anyone—and we ended up in the mall’s underground parking lot, so we were smashing into each other and smashing into cars.”—Erin Oke
“I liked the shopping carts. They were scary. They were in a big plywood maze that basically looked like a slaughterhouse. The walls went up to the height of the shopping cart. So you’d see the person you wanted to hit with your shopping cart, but you still had to get through the maze, so chances are, you weren’t going to get to them.”—Miriam Verberg
“I got lost in the maze, really lost, to the point that I didn’t see anybody anymore. By the time I got back everybody had moved on. It was, like, two activities later. Nobody came to find me. I remember I just gave up the shopping cart at a certain point and was running, trying to find my way back.”—Jayme Stone, 33
“We had head bumps periodically, but I don’t think we had any major accidents. Usually things happened during the whipped-cream ﬁghts, because it was really slippery. People would slip. I don’t know. Kids today aren’t allowed to play, they’re not allowed to do anything….It’s like, just give me a break. The only acceptable thing for them to do anymore is sit like a marshmallow in front of their videogame…and that’s safe.”—Harry Stinson
“By the end of the party, there would be bloody knuckles and bruised feelings and people would be crying. It almost got out of hand constantly. I remember they made sure there was a cushion of 20, 30 minutes where we were let loose in the ice-cream parlour, and you’d get these double cones—one handle with two scoops side-by-side—and you could have as much ice cream as you wanted. So when the parents showed up you were sort of, like, coming down from this emotional adrenaline rush, from a sugar high, and you were kind of, like, [panting], and if you had been crying an hour earlier, now you were, like, best party ever!”—Jesse Brown
“I used to waitress in Yorkville in the late ’70s, and we’d see these really fried-looking children coming out of The Mad Hatter, and I remember we used to sit across the street, just waiting for a shift to start or something, and you’d see these really, really messed-up looking kids staggering out of there—it looked like they came out of a horror movie, ’cause they’d have ketchup all over their clothing and they’d look really really pooped. So it kind of was great.”—Erella Ganon, 52
“You wonder, ‘Could that really have been what it was like?’ I think when you reach the age of 16, you begin to realize that it was just petrifyingly dangerous. It should not have legally existed for as long as it did. Like, how long did it exist? Two decades? That makes literally no sense to me. I’m stunned nobody was killed. I’m stunned no one was sued.”—Matt Brown
“I just wanted to be left alone at The Mad Hatter. I had a dream of just getting into it myself and having, like, three people who would be my complement, and staying there for a really long time. Like an opium den.”—Miriam Verberg
“I would always hear, ‘Oh, The Mad Hatter is the best.’ But I didn’t love it. It was sinister, with this weird sexual overtone.”—Jeremy Freed
“I felt love, total love. I was not afraid. I was not afraid at all.”—Lisa Mesbur
Did you tell your parents what happened?
“I wouldn’t have talked to my parents about it. What do you say?”—Will O’Neill, 30
Back at school
“After the party was over, I remember walking around alone in this industrial park, sopping wet in the winter, and waiting for my mom to pick me up—completely shell-shocked from the whole thing. This was on a Sunday. On Monday, some kid who hadn’t been invited to the party heard it was amazing and great, and he came up and asked me what my nickname had been, and I told him: Amy Asswipe. Then my teacher heard that I swore, and I was sent to the principal’s office, and I think I really freaked out at that point. I think I started crying. I felt so hard done by. The world had gotten so strange all of a sudden.”—Amy Langstaff
For more by Sheila Heti, visit www.sheilaheti.net.