ED2015 News ED2015 Week0 Edition

Gilded Balloon: Thirty years young

By | Published on Sunday 2 August 2015


As ThreeWeeks covers its twentieth Festival, the Gilded Balloon venue is celebrating its thirtieth birthday, so I’m not sure who should be buying who the cake. But it did seem like a good time to catch up with Gilded Balloon chief Karen Koren.

“I had some friends in London who were involved with the then new alternative comedy scene”, Koren says, recalling how she came to launch the original Gilded Balloon venue three decades ago, “and they were looking for places to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. So I found them somewhere. The ‘Gilded Balloon’ was a bar and restaurant which had just opened in the Cowgate which subsequently went into liquidation. But I thought it was an amusing name, so I kept it”.

Given the size of the Gilded Balloon operation at the Fringe today, that first year was rather more modest. “We only had one space – the Education Room of the 369 Gallery – so I put a bar in the corner and programmed in seven shows per day. Liz Lochead was one of the daytime shows. And we had Arnold Brown, Oscar McLennan and Raw Sex, the backing duo from French and Saunders, aka Roland Rivron and Simon Brint. Oh, and also the Oblivion Boys”.

Year one was very much about enabling those alternative comedy contacts to have a base at the Festival. “There was no long term plan at the beginning and I certainly did not think that it would last 30 years”, Koren says. “It wasn’t until I started adding venues and putting other shows up against each other that the operation started growing, and I could see that the comedy scene was a good avenue to pursue, that there was a gap in the market, both in Scotland and at the Fringe”.

Since then, that comedy scene has changed radically of course, both at the Festival and in general. “From the mid-eighties to now, comedy has changed the face of entertainment on television, and some stand-ups have achieved whole new levels of fame. Meanwhile the Fringe has also become very commercial and there are far more professional venues; while more recently, the Free Fringe has a changed things again”.

Gilded Balloon remained in its Cowgate home for seventeen years, expanding down and around the road as the years went by. But then, of course, the main Gilded Balloon venue was destroyed in a fire.

“That’s the obvious low of the last thirty years” Koren admits. “It was never a completely ideal venue or area, but there was something about the atmosphere that was created there, and we were the first venue to have a late night club where all the comedians would gather, which made it completely unique at the time. Many comics have a real soft spot for the Cowgate days”. But Gilded Balloon lived on, and continued to grow once its August operations had been relocated into the Edinburgh University students’ union building at Teviot Row, what had previously been the infamous Fringe Club during the Festival.

Looking ahead, what does Koren see for the next three decades for the Gilded Balloon? “My daughter has now returned from being in London for eight years and has decided to make a go of it in the Gilded Balloon. She is young, enthusiastic, stylish and has some great ideas”.

“In order to keep the Gilded Balloon up to the minute with exciting entertainment, it needs new blood, so I look forward to my daughter’s input. I will keep being part of the business as long as I can and we will work together and create an even more exciting Gilded Balloon in the future”.

And as for the future of the Fringe: “The Fringe will continue to thrive. I think there could be further changes in the free show strands as they evolve, and maybe ultimately fewer free show venues if the city decides to regulate these more. Elsewhere, the Edinburgh University campus, which has been the hub of the Fringe in recent years, is going through some big changes which will have an impact on some of the venues. There could even be another shift in where the centre of the Fringe sits. But whatever happens, the Fringe will survive and will still be the biggest arts festival in the world”.

LINKS: gildedballoon.co.uk