From guildhall to dance hall
The current Ancienne Belgique is located on a historic site in the heart of Brussels. In the 15th century the house of the retailers the Meerslieden, could be found on this spot. At the time the house served as a reinforced bank vault, nursing home for the sick, meeting place and banqueting hall. Three centuries later the complex had developed into an actual centre with a social-cultural role. The only tangible memory of this era is a commemorative plaque with the inscription "Meersliedenambacht 1781".
The Belle Epoque brought new glory: from 1906 till 1913 the "Vieux Düsseldorf" was all the rage with a German style interior, seating for 1,500, two orchestras and music hall and revue artists. In 1913 alterations were begun (the first of many!) and so the "Bruxelles-Kermesse" came into being, the same brasserie formula, but with acrobats, conjurers and film projections. Later on the hall was transformed into a popular dance hall.
The success of the music hall
In 1931 the whole estate came into the hands of Georges Mathonet, a 22 year old native of Liège. The age of the Ancienne Belgique had dawned. Georges was a real business man, just like his father Arthur had been. In no time at all he owned similar establishments in Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels. The Brussels variant, our very own AB, would outlive them all and become one of the leading music halls of the moment. Its success soon meant the premises were… destined for demolition! The time had come for a larger hall with double the capacity, seating up to 13,00 people.
Mathonet wasn’t discouraged by the outbreak of the Second World War: he earned his stripes in the resistance. The liberation led to a real boom in the world of entertainment and the AB was pretty much at the centre of it all. The success formula of the day: magicians, acrobats, impersonators and comedians went on to arm up the audience. Then the English and American stars la vedette anglaise and vedette américaine sang three and six songs respectively. After the interval came the 40-minute main act.
Charles Trenet, Gilbert Bécaud, Aznavour, Georges Brassens, Edith Piaf, Adamo, Annie Cordy and Bobbejaan Schoepen all performed here. Brel was a real regular. A dozen shows a week was common, half of which were matinees. The entire operation was affordable and technically straightforward. There was a relaxed family atmosphere. The audience ate, drank and chatted away as they enjoyed performances and music in the red velvet-clad hall.
In 1954 Bruno Coquatrix – who previously worked in the AB – took over the running of the most famous music hall of Europe: the Olympia in Paris. He and Georges Mathonet became partners. Ten magisterial years followed. The management cashed in on the French pop music of the 1960s, with artists such as Johnny Hallyday and Claude Francois and a different and younger audience.
Following the fire at the Innovation (1967) Mathonet was under the obligation to safeguard his premises according to the new regulations. This was a costly investment which was never actually completed. An attempt to turn the Ancienne Belgique into a Parisian Lido failed and a request for subsidies was left unanswered. In 1971 Mathonet was declared bankrupt and packed it all in.
A new direction
The premises went to rack and ruin for a while, until jazz and blues enthusiast Paul Ambach came on the scene, that is. He saw it as the ideal venue for organising concerts: smaller than the recently opened Forest National but large enough for a series of big name atmospheric shows. Ambach managed to convince the curator and up until 1979 major artists ranging from Leonard Cohen, Herbie Hancock and Frank Zappa to Golden Earring, Lou Reed, Kraftwerk, The Clash and The Stranglers all graced the stage.
In 1977 the Ministry of Finance purchased the building. Along with the Botanique it was offered to both the French and the Dutch-speaking cultural communities. Two State Secretaries for Brussels affairs had to fight it out amongst themselves: Vic Anciaux (VU) and François Persoons (FDF). The Flemish went for the AB due to its central location and popular backdrop. The mission of the new Ancienne Belgique: to provide as many Flemish music fans as possible with a friendly meeting place in the centre of the capital. It was to be a creative place too, an entertainment centre for young and old.
The original name was kept, but the abbreviation AB was soon widely used. Manager Ivo Goris and his very young volunteers and temporary staff, turned it into an open house, where all manner of initiatives were welcome. Training activities during the day and artistic activities and partying at night.
Building and renovation works
The central location turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. After repeated complaints about the noise, the city administration withdrew the operating licence in 1980. Serious renovation works were in order. In 1982 the works began, in phases, beginning with the Main Hall.
The reopening of 23 December 1983 was an unforgettable moment in the history of the AB. But it soon became clear that the noise issue had still not been resolved. The AB team valiantly soldiered on with a reduced operating licence. All night parties made way for a strictly observed closing time and new, less noisy genres were given a chance. Dutch-language music and traditional music from Africa, India and South America were included in the programme, as was the cream of the dance and theatre world.
In spite of the strong team behind it, with Jari Demeulemeester as Artistic Director (General Manager since 1988), fear was hanging over the AB: police interventions, fines and threats from the biggest law firms were a constant reminder of the danger of closure.
In 1986 Minister Patrick Dewael decided to carry out a thorough noise investigation. The report was catastrophic yet hopeful and led to a new building programme. During the major construction works the AB and the Kaaitheater, which was also being renovated at that time, were temporarily housed in the Luna Theatre on Place Sainctelette. The Kaaitheater would end up remaining there while the AB returned to the centre of Brussels once the works were completed.
The greatly expanded premises were unveiled to the public at the reopening of the brand-new AB in 1996. The technology that was used in the building put it on the world map. The main entrance is no longer situated on Rue aux Pierres. This is where the AB café and ticket shop are now housed. Equipment can be delivered via a separate loading and unloading area. The new entrance can be found on Boulevard Anspach and overlooks a large market place. The Club is located in a separate sound-proofed area on the first floor. The Main Hall with its two floors, galleries and red décor is the only part of the building that hasn’t been renovated. The AB even has its very own recording studio. Via this studio the music from the concert hall can be broadcast throughout the world via radio, TV or the internet.
Since the reopening in 1996 the AB can also count on adequate support, firstly thanks to the Music decree, later via the Arts decree. As number one pop and rock temple, since 2008 it can proudly count itself amongst the select group of ‘institutions of the Flemish Community’.
In all these years the venue’s profile has barely changed: the AB brings music of today, by people of today, to the world in which we live. With concerts in the Main Hall and the Club, and with AB TV, AB Sessions, house chamber concerts, listening sessions and readings in Huis 23. And every summer the Feërieën and Boterhammen in het Park (in 2014 it will have been going for 25 years!) enchant the Royal Park with their magical outdoor concerts.
The AB, and more specifically the Club, is still a real hotbed for young artists. Plenty of fresh young talent was uncovered during the Domino festival (1996 -2011). Now there are projects such as Silence Is Sexy and Artists in Residence. In 2014 a new initiative came into being: Get Sprouts Again: AB’s 10 for the future.
And the future looks bright. With its ambitious Liveurope the Brussels music temple is going international. Thanks to the support of the European Commission (within the framework of ‘Creative Europe’) the AB will be connecting as many as 13 different European concert halls as of 2015. Each will offer visibility for young artists from the partner countries.
In short, AB is still doing what it has been doing for years: introducing interesting new and established artists to as broad a range of music enthusiasts as possible. With passion for music and love for the audience. And there’s no reason to suppose things will change in the future!