ASK PLAYBILL.COM: When Did Broadway Shows Start Offering Sunday Performances?

By Robert Simonson
04 Apr 2011

Producer Alexander H. Cohen was among the first to offer Sunday performances.
Producer Alexander H. Cohen was among the first to offer Sunday performances.

A question asking how and when the now-common phenomenon of Sunday Broadway performances came about.

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Question: It is my understanding that many years ago Broadway shows did not have Sunday performances. If so, when did Sunday performances start? Once the first show added a Sunday performance, how long did it take until a majority of Broadway shows had a Sunday performance? Did something trigger the change (e.g. change in union contracts, New York law)? — Bill Duncan, Marlboro, NJ.

Sunday performances, particularly Sunday matinees, are so common on Broadway that theatregoers take them for granted. But Sunday was once a day as dark as Monday is today in Times Square.

The root reason for the lack of Sunday shows in the past is the same one that explains why many stores — and especially liquor stores and bars — were closed on that day: the wide observation of the Christian Sabbath by civic organizations. The legal prohibition against many activities on Sunday were called "blue laws," and were passed and enforced by lawmakers who were primarily Protestant.

Blue laws are as old at New York State. A 1695 colonial New York blue law read, "Be it therefore enacted that there shall be no traveling, servile laboring and working, shooting, fishing, sporting, playing, horseracing, hunting, or frequenting of tippling houses, or the use of any other unlawful exercises or pastimes, by any of the inhabitants or sojourners within this province, or by any of their slaves or servants, on the Lord's day." Even baseball was once banned on the Lord's Day. "It was against the law to do anything theatrical on Sunday," said Reagan Fletcher of the Shubert Archives. "Theatres were used for Sunday concerts for a period of time. There was a point when something about those laws were changed."

The once widely known convention of the Broadway theatre week ending on Saturday, theatre journalist and educator Jeffrey Eric Jenkins pointed out, is illustrated by the classic George S. Kaufman quip, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." Sunday is just as alliterative, but wouldn't have reflected the real schedule. (Of course, the point was that satire is never a sure box office bet. Have we killed the epigram, yet?)

"The change came in 1940," said Fletcher. "I found a series of articles in the New York Times where Equity and the producers were involved in this decision."

A referendum held by Equity in early November 1940 found the actors themselves wanted Sunday performances.  A New York Times article on Nov. 5, 1940, was titled "Shows on Sunday to Start at Once." Read the article: "The start of regular Sunday performances next Sunday was authorized yesterday by the council of the Actors' Equity Association. The only stipulation that the council imposed was that there should be no increase in the box-office price of tickets." A further article, on Nov. 27 of that year, reported that 11 of 19 producers tried out the Sunday schedule, and results were "encouraging" and "theatre men are agreeably surprised."

Paul Libin
photo by Aubrey Reuben

But, once the change was made, why and when Sunday performances became the norm at the 40 or so Broadway theatres proves to be a tougher query to answer. More than any question this column has fielded in some time, this puzzle all but stumped the panel. I questioned a variety of theatre officials, journalists, press agents and historians and nobody was quite sure. Some contended the practice did not become widespread in the 1960s. Some said the 1970s. Others claimed the 1980s.

The reason people gave for the increasing popularity of Sunday shows varied as well. "I believe that the Sundays started to come in during the late '60s, and became commonplace by the mid-'70s," said theatre historian Steven Suskin, who also worked as a stage manager during those decades. "This was definitely an economic measure; in those days, you charged less for matinees and Sunday labor costs were higher, especially stagehands, music and box office. So sellout shows stayed on the Monday-Saturday schedule; they would then switch to Sundays when business weakened."

Jujamcyn Theatres executive Paul Libin, who ran Circle in the Square on Broadway for decades, confirmed that there were higher labor costs if one performed on Sunday.

Veteran publicist Shirley Herz also remembered economics being a motivator, but in a different way. "When ticket sales started to fall, particularly for musicals, producers added Sunday performances since fewer shows were running [that day] and the competition was lessened."

The weakness of Monday as a theatregoing day eventually caused an exodus to Sundays. "I believe that someone took a shot at it because the Monday gross was so weak and Sunday matinee enhanced the potential for a family incursion and there was not much to lose," added Merle Debuskey, another theatre P.R. vet. "The Actors Fund Special performances were on Sunday and were very well attended, which was encouraging, although it was special. The attempt proved to be fortuitous, so a couple of others tried it and also were successful in beating their Monday gross. This led to the parade. Remember, a Sunday performance included a penalty payment for most of the unions so they were a bit more costly. Some unions waived the penalty including ATPAM."

Both Debuskey and Shubert Organization executive Lee Silver recalled producer Alexander H. Cohen being a trailblazer in this area. "It came at a time when business was very slow," said Silver, "and people at the League were talking about how to improve it. Alex Cohen said he was going to try Sundays."

Based on this sampling of opinions, it would seem that Sunday slowly but surely became a more attractive performance day through a combination of better grosses, attractiveness to family audiences, and their popularity with actors.

Of course, everything changes. In recent years, some producers have experimented with Monday night performances, and shed Sunday performances.