Some patrons emerging from the debut told WCBS-TV they weren't even aware the orchestra wasn't there and the music wasn't live.
"We didn't even realize it was canned until we asked somebody at intermission," one said. "I couldn't tell, and we come here almost every year."
"It was the same," said another. "I had to ask one of the attendants if it was live or recorded."
The musicians, their instruments in hand, pulled down their picket line and returned to work Thursday morning after a one-day strike. But they wound up stranded outside Radio City as thousands of ticket-holders streamed past to attend the first show of the season.
"We are ready to play unconditionally and immediately, but apparently we've been locked out," said David Lennon, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. "We took the picket signs down, and we did it for all the audience members and all of New York."
The show, a holiday fixture for seven decades, ordinarily draws tens of thousands of revelers every Christmas season. But the labor dispute raised questions about this year's show, as stagehands conducted a one-night walkout Wednesday in support of the musicians.
The dispute did not affect the world-famous Rockettes dance troupe.
Radio City Entertainment, which produces the show, denied that the musicians were locked out, claiming their decision to proceed using a taped performance by a 55-piece orchestra was prompted by the strike.
"We told the musicians in no uncertain terms that until there is an agreement, and there is no possibility of them walking out on future performances, they remain on strike," management said in a statement distributed outside the music hall.
Negotiations were ongoing, said management spokesman Barry Watkins.
Musicians for the 35-member orchestra gathered in vain outside the stage door on W. 51st Street. Union member Roger Rosenberg entertained the waiting crowd by playing Christmas carols on his saxophone.
Wednesday's strike forced cancellation of a preseason performance that night, stranding hundreds of disappointed ticket holders as several dozen musicians picketed outside the Manhattan landmark.
The show, featuring the chorus-line kicks of the Rockettes dancers, is known around the world. Tickets run as high as $250.
The musicians' main issues are salaries and overtime pay. The orchestra's contract expired in May, and the union blamed management for the breakdown of talks.
The union accuses Cablevision Systems Corp., which operates Radio City, of vastly underpaying musicians who put on several shows a day throughout the holiday season. In a statement, Radio City said it had offered the musicians increases in salary and benefits "over what is already the most lucrative contract in the industry."
The union-represented Rockettes planned to perform since there was no picket line to cross, according to their union, the American Guild of Variety Artists. The Rockettes reached a contract agreement with Radio City Entertainment last month.
More than a dozen Broadway musicals went dark in March 2003 for four days after the musicians' union walked out, and theaters lost millions of dollars in revenue. But when the union struck the New York City Ballet in 2000, performances of "The Nutcracker" went on as scheduled with taped music.
Union negotiator Mark Johansen said previously that Radio City Entertainment was trying to cut the musicians' base pay of $133 per show, which he said was about $40 less than what standard Broadway musicians are paid. At the height of the Christmas season, the orchestra works as many as six 90-minute shows every day — at overtime pay beyond the first two. The musicians must play at least 12 shows a week.
On average, Johansen said, a musician doing 150 of about 200 shows in the run would make about $25,000. He added that orchestra members also receive basic year-round health benefits.