End of an ERA :

Belgian public broadcaster bides farewell to American Theatre


These days moving vans drive on and off at the « American Theatre » in Brussels, Belgium. They are clearing the building of props, equipment and archive documents belonging to VRT, the Belgian Dutch language public broadcaster, not to mention the collection of historic radio and TV equipment from the “Omroepmuseum”.

For over 50 years VRT has a tv studio at this site. But why the name American Theatre? What is so American about it?

Well, the building was part of the American pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, which also gave us the landmark Atomium structure (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomium ).


The American pavilion was designed by Edward Durell Stone, amongst others architect of the MOMA building in New York and  the Kennedy Center for the performing arts in Washington. The American pavilion gave him fame; he even made the March 31, 1958 Time cover (see http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19580331,00.html ).


The American pavilion in 1958;  photo courtesy  Vintage Vacation Photos



The main building was round, in fact at the time it was the largest free standing circular structure in the world. Measuring 105 m in diameter, it consisted of a solid base topped with a glass and plastic superstructure, 26 m high, with an open atrium in the middle. (After the fair this top was  removed, only the base remained.)

Inside, visitors got a look at the American Way of Life, a glimpse of a promising future for post war Europe, and of American technology. To be seen in operation were among others, a computer (The IBM RAMAC 305, with a 0.004 GB disk storage capacity!), robotic arms, voting machines, and a color TV studio! At that time even B/W TV was rather new to us; it took in fact another ten years before Europe started color transmissions (Belgium in 1971). And we got a taste of hamburgers and hot dogs, soft ice, canned beer, Pepsi and Coca Cola …


The same building now. Only the base survived 


Next to it was another, smaller circular structure, the latest-technology “American Theatre”   which seated 1150. It was full house every night, not surprising with top acts like Harry Belafonte, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington,  Yehudi Menuhin, the American Ballet Theatre, a Leonard Bernstein musical, the Philadelphia Orchestra, various military bands,  etc.


Finally there was the Disney Circarama theatre, (360 deg. cinema screen) torn down after the expo. In fact most buildings were temporary structures, often disassembled and rebuilt somewhere else.

Not so the American pavilion : it was sold to the Belgian authorities for the proverbial dollar. Not exactly having a good use for it, they in turn leased the theatre (and later what was left of the pavilion) to VRT, the Dutch language public broadcaster. (www.VRT.be ).


Audience as seen from the set in the sixties;   photo courtesy VRT


It became its main show studio, at first operated with OB vans. From 1964 it went equipped with its own kit, mainly supplied by the British EMI company, then active in the broadcasting business. It had four EMI 203 B/W 4.5” image orthicon cameras and local film playback; VTR recording and playback was by microwave link from the main building, some miles away, later also from a VTR van, equipped with Ampex VR1100.



Audio control, production switcher and lighting control in 1964;   photos courtesy VRT



Famous and notorious in its days was the Rolling Stones act in a youth program in November 1964.


Brian Jones surrounded – Stones with camera; photo courtesy VRT Copyright RR


VRT starting transmitting in color from 1971; the electronics was updated with EMI 2005 Leddicon (same as Plumbicon) cameras.

Contrary to other cameras the tubes are aligned in a horizontal plane (versus vertical in the Philips camera e.g.), giving a slender but wider look to the camera, with an alleged increased sensitivity to the earth magnetic field. Anyhow, the cameras were powered day in day out for better stability.


EMI 2005 during rehearsal;  photo courtesy VRT


In the eighties, EMIs were replaced by IKEGAMI HK322 cameras, fitted with 30 mm diode gun LOC, excellent cameras, and the last of the tube breed. Later VRT went for CCD (and 16/9) with the Thomson TTV1657.


Over time the studio couldn’t keep up matching possibilities offered elsewhere, audience seating was not adequate anymore, talent facilities were outdated, the floor area, even after being increased several times, was not up to modern standards. (It is not unusual to find 2.000 sq. m studios in Belgium, the largest I know measures 3400 sq. m!)




Left : an EMI 203 from the collection. Right : the stage is awaiting the last program


This, together with the increased heating and maintenance costs (the building sits over a natural well requiring constant pumping for not flooding the studio!) made VRT to leave the building after the present lease expires, end of June this year. They will rent other studios on an “as needed” base.

Bad news for the “Omroepmuseum”, our own broadcasting museum, dedicated to the history of radio and TV broadcasting, preserving equipment at the studio and transmitter side as well as consumer stuff. Our storage being located in the building, we have to move as well.

Fortunately, VRT kindly offered us some space below their largest TV studio at headquarters, (almost) enough to store TV equipment, and equally at another location for radio related objects. Aided by moving professionals, we have to relocate some 3500 odd items.


Moving : there must be an AVR1 and a VR1000C here somewhere


Well, thus comes an end to the story of TV production at the American Theatre, built to last for only six months, probably going to be demolished after 54 years. Unless someone else shows some interest?


Jan Cuypers  - Author with Darwin the dog.

Chairman Omroepmuseum





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