The theme of the party, said the young man with the tinfoil helmet, was "get orgiastic," and the required dress for the evening was "formal toga."
But then no one was quite sure what formal, as opposed to casual toga, meant. So there were white togas and ties and Lacoste togas with alligators sewn on them, and floral togas and garlands of holly and a determined attitude toward decadence.
The beer flowed like wine, and "concubines" fed grapes to their dates, while the whispered asides between the women had less to do with what was behind the toga phenomenon as it did with what was beneath them. Bathing suits prevailed among the girls, while the young men made do with gym shorts and tennis whites.
"You can tell which of the guys think they have good bodies," said one demurely wrapped lady to a friend. "It depends on whether they have one shoulder cover or two."
A committee of 10 Georgetown University juniors had planned this Saturday night's fervor and yes they had taken as their inspiration the National Lampoon movie "Animal House."
"We got back to school and that's all anyone was talking about." said Anne Kelly, one of the party's many hosts. "It seemed like everyone had seen it a million times."
This semester's exercise in collegiate exhibitionism has bloomed not only at most of the major universities in the area (including one at the University of Maryland earlier this month that attracted about 2,000 people) but across most of the country as well. Excess will be added to imitation at the University of Wisconsin this weekend, where students are trying for a crowd of 10,000 and a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for mixing a drink composed of everything the partygoers bring along.
For those who hadn't seen the movie or lacked contacts among a generation who might have been educated in the fine art of the toga party, there was an added source for inspiration. Universal Pictures which produced "Animal House," thoughtfully provided more than $4 million and a battllion of promoters to visit selected college campuses and help the students organize their very first toga parties.
Actually the party at Surrey Lane was taking the classical origins of the party very seriously. A Rex Bibindi had been appointed to serve as a toastmaster. Large volumes with small print had been checked out of the library to determine the proper wrapping of togas. They had even planned, Kelly said, to have authentic Roman hors d'oeuvres until monetary constrictions forced them to chicken and egg salad sandwiches.
But if the menu standards had fallen, the dress code had not. A group of friends who showed up at the door without togas were turned away. "We offered them out extra sheets," said Kelly. "but what's the point if you don't draw the line?"
One of the partygoers chugged a beer after losing at a modernized version of an old Roman game of chance. "Do you think we're decadent?" another asked, as the drone of the disco music threatened to shake the carrots out of his garland.
"You gotta get wild," they said, which apparently means having the kind of time where "you can't remember the next morning what you did the night before," and the glory of a toga party is that "people figure if you're wearing a toga, you're willing to do just about anything."
But for all the talk of getting wild and exceeding limits, it was quite an innocent little party, the revelers all treading the customarily tricky terrain that most social skirmishes contain, advancing and retreating and searching for the portents, good and evil of the night moves that lay ahead.
There were even those among the Toga crowd at Surrey Lane who raised the party form a fad to a philosophy of sorts.
"But when you get to (the toga party) you really feel as one." said a sophomore political science major at American University. "I see it lasting and growing. It's better than 1969 and the flower children."
Bob Holman, a first-year medical student at Georgetown from California, Surveyed the subject with detachment. "There really aren't that many toga parties out there," he said. "Out there, we have hot tubs."
Holman had theories on the meaning of it all as well. "It's sort of a form of primitive socialization." you know what I mean?" he said. "In the 60s everyone sat around, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and discussing problems. That was their idea of fun. Well, we were raised on problems and our idea of having fun is playing games. It's the old mind-body stuff - we're into the body where they used to like to go off and discuss poetry."
All week long, they explain with the added emphasis that alcholol brings, they can feel the tension mount on campus, in the classrooms, in the library. All week long, they say, it is week's end that is counted on for temporary redemption from the certainty that "nowadays, everybody knows that they're not going to get a job when they get out of here."
And it's Saturday, they say, that must bring salvation as well from the fears of not just getting into graduate school, but into the right graduate school, and all the other worries that haunt that dark straight tunnel of the single-minded future. "I mean, if somebody shattered my future, I'd just die," said Cindy Anderson. "The only way you can stop thinking about it is to get wild every weekend."
Which is a difficult thing to do, said one, "When everybody's got on their corduroys and cable knits, the girls are all dressed to the T and everybody's standing around judging everybody else."
Except for toga parties, said Judy Klem, "It's hard to get psyched for a party anymore - a lot of the people you know are already beginning to act like their parents."
Some of those who actually attended the original toga parties from which "Animal House" took its cue are amazed. "I can't believe it," said one veteran whose memory is accompanied with more of a wince than wistfulness. "The only reason for those damn parties was that you figured you had a better chance getting a girl out of a toga than you did not of anything else. Hasn't anything changed? What about the women's lution, what about the women's movement? You mean none of that made any difference?"
Not all those who are going to toga parties are the young looking grimly into the future and seeking refuge in the present. There are those among the not-so-young who, having seen the future, are rushing headlong into the past.
Most of the people at Mitch Birzon's toga party, which took place that same Saturday night, were unemployed lawyers freed from the fetters of the bar exam and looking about them now for jobs in a city that does not find lawyers a rare commodity. "I guess we're all here reliving our youth," said one self-described "soon-to-be-practicing attorney. "Something like this brings back the times when you didn't have anything to worry about. I guess we're all having deja vu in Mitch's backyard."