The British-English phrase early door(s) denoted a period of admission ending some time before the beginning of a theatrical performance, in order to offer a guaranteed seat or a wider selection of seating, typically for a higher price.
This phrase occurred, for example, in a letter to the Editor, published in The Daily Telegraph (London, England) of Monday 29th January 1996—the first paragraph refers to a discussion in this newspaper about the origin of the British-English phrase early doors, meaning early on, near the beginning:
SIR—The term “Early Doors” (Bush Telegraph, Jan. 23) was certainly used outside the context of football 50 years ago.
As a regular visitor to Wimbledon Theatre in those days, I can well remember that “Early Doors” for admission to the gallery cost a shilling; they were so called because if you arrived early enough you could choose your seat.
“Late Doors” began about 15 minutes (or even ten) before the performance. The cost was sixpence, and one used up the seats that were left.
The earliest occurrences that I have found of the phrase early door(s), denoting early admission to a theatrical performance, are as follows, in chronological order:
1-: From a letter to the Editors, published in the Liverpool Mercury (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Tuesday 24th April 1877:
OUR LOCAL THEATRES.
Gentlemen,—It was with some degree of satisfaction that I welcomed a movement in the right direction adopted at most of our local theatres during the pantomime season—namely, that of providing special entrances or early doors for the convenience of those who, wishing to avoid the crush, would willingly pay a small additional amount. This excellent arrangement, I am sorry to see, has now completely fallen into oblivion, but from what cause I certainly cannot comprehend. It may be urged by the management of our local places of amusement that the number of people frequenting those places is not so great at this period of the year as at Christmastide, and that therefore there is no necessity to continue the adoption of these early doors. I would, however, ask them, does the arrangement in question entail on them any extra expense? No, surely not, on the contrary, it would sooner tend to augment their coffers than decrease them. At any rate, if the plan be not utilised throughout the year, I certainly do think it ought to be adopted on special occasions, such, for instance, as the present appearance of that distinguished tragedian, Mr. Barry Sullivan, at the Amphitheatre, which place I visited last evening, and when I witnessed the immense concourse of people, elbowing their way in at the various entrances, especially the most popular parts, it at once struck me that there were doubtless a very great number among them who, although unlike myself possessing the means to enter the dress circle or stalls, yet would cheerfully, and perhaps could easily, have afforded to have paid a small additional sum to have avoided so great a crush—nay, would eagerly have seized such a boon had it been within their reach.
A. J. W. SAMUEL.
14 and 16, Seel-street, April 19, 1877.
2-: From an advertisement for Henry V, by William Shakespeare, produced at the New Prince’s Theatre, Blackburn, published in The Blackburn Standard (Blackburn, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 19th March 1881:
For Six Nights Only […].
Monday, 21st March, 1881, and every evening, at 7 30 […].
Prices:—Pit, 6d; Balcony, 1s; Reserved Seats, 1s 6d; Stalls, 2s 6d.
Early doors open at 6 30. Admission to all parts of the house, 6d extra.
3, 4 & 5-: From advertisements for Sindbad the Sailor, a pantomime by E. L. Blanchard, produced at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, published in several newspapers in December 1882 and January 1883 for example:
3-: In The Sporting Times (London, England) of Saturday 23rd December 1882:
Morning performances nearly every day. For particulars see daily papers. Box-office open from 10 to 5. Early doors at 6, commence 7.15. Morning Performances—Early doors 12.30, commence 1.30. The children’s Toy Book of Sindbad, with twelve trick changes, free at the box-office to all persons booking seats.
4-: In The Morning Post (London, England) of Saturday 30th December 1882:
DRURY LANE.—SINDBAD.—EVERY EVENING, at 7.15. Morning Performances Every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, at 1.30. Early Door to Unreserved Seats, 6d. extra.
5-: In The Daily News (London, England) of Tuesday 2nd January 1883:
DRURY LANE PANTOMIME.—A large number of the best seats are always reserved for the general public at the Box Office of the Theatre, which is Now Open—The Children’s Toy Book of Sindbad, with 12 trick changes, free at the Box-Office. Children half-price to Morning Performance on payment at the doors only. Early doors 6d. extra.
6 & 7-: From Dramatic & Musical Gossip, by ‘Carados’, published in The Referee (London, England):
6-: Of Sunday 14th January 1883:
So that the little people who are now thinking with tears in their eyes about going back to school may have a chance of seeing the Drury Lane pantomime, morning performances are to be given every day this week. By the way, I should mention that the system of early admission by extra payment has been abolished only so far as the sixpenny gallery is concerned. Numerous correspondents who have written me on the subject will please accept this explanation. Gus 1 says the pittites 2 generally regard the “early door” as a boon, and that the grumblers are in a decided minority.
1 Gus refers either to the British actor Augustus Harris (1852-1896), who was the lessee of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, or to the Irish journalist and newspaper editor Augustus Martin Moore (?-1918), who was the acting manager of the Theatre Royal.
2 The humorous noun pittite denotes a spectator who occupies a place in the pit of a theatre.
7-: Of Sunday 21st January 1883:
Mr. Augustus Harris, at present lessee of Drury Lane, is trying very hard to kill the goose that lays for him golden eggs. I have been during the past week the recipient of a small heap of letters full of complaints of the way in which those who would patronise his show are treated. Some of those who, being unable to find room after paying for it, have demanded the return of their coin tell me the extra sum paid for early admission has been deducted. This is altogether unjust. Says one indignant correspondent: “Is this retention of the sixpences in the nature of a commission for the trouble of taking one’s money and returning it, or is the idea to prevent people troubling the establishment again? To the latter contingency I am perfectly reconciled; as for the former, the rate seems a little high. It would be interesting to know what proportion of that very large sum, taken in such an extraordinarily short time—a best on record (see advertisements)—has been obtained in this manner.” Now, Augustus Harris and Augustus Moore, please do something to put an end to these complaints, and make your patrons your friends by giving them generous treatment.
Provincial managers do not seem to have much trouble over the early door business. Most of those who have tried it say it works well. The Royal, at Manchester, where Captain R. Bainbridge is doing big things with another “Sindbad the Sailor,” is a case in point. The doors are opened at six o’clock, and the charge for admission to the pit is then 2s. This figure continues till a quarter to seven, after which time you may go in for 1s. I wonder what some of our London grumblers would say to this. The Manchester folk, however, seem rather to like it.
8-: From an advertisement for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, published in The Era (London, England) of Saturday 17th March 1883:
Doors open at 7.30; commence at 8.0 o’clock;
Early Doors open at 7.15.
Private Boxes from £1 1s. to £5 5s.;
Stalls, 10s. 6d.; Grand Circle, 7s.; First Circle, 5s.;
Balcony, 3s. 6d.; Early Doors, 6d. extra.
Pit, 2s. 6d.; Early Doors, 6d. extra.
Amphitheatre, 1s. 6d.; Early Doors, 6d. extra.