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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 July, 2003, 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK
Fire fails to burst the Balloon
By Steve Brocklehurst
BBC News Online Scotland

The former site of the Gilded Balloon
The Gilded Balloon nerve centre was destroyed
Sales for shows at Edinburgh Fringe venue The Gilded Balloon are as strong as last year, despite its main premises being wiped out in the fire which raged through the city's Old Town.

Karen Koren, who established the famous comedy venue in Edinburgh's Cowgate 17 years ago, said pre-sales through the Fringe box office were up 20% on last year.

The venue's own ticket sales had suffered due to confusion about where its new operation was located, she said.

The Cowgate venue had been the Gilded Balloon's nerve centre, containing three comedy venues, a production studio, a popular bar, a press office, an accounts office and years of memorabilia.

Late-night revellers

The entire Cowgate operation was destroyed by the fire last December and this year the comedy venue will be based in the Edinburgh University student union building on Teviot Row, which it began using two years ago.

It will also use The Venue nightclub on Calton Road, The Caves on Niddry Street South, and Cabaret Voltaire, a year-round nightspot on Blair Street, almost directly opposite the old burnt-out site.

Ms Koren said this year's festival experience would be "very different".

In previous years, the Gilded Balloon had been a magnet for late-night revellers with performers at is "late 'n' live" shows experiencing something close to gladiatorial combat.

Ms Koren said: "People will get quite a shock when they go to the Cowgate site and see that we are not there."

Karen Koren
Karen Koren outside the burnt-out venue
In an attempt to redirect confused punters, Koren has arranged for "gobo" lighting to be used near the site to advertise the new location of the Gilded Balloon venues.

A plan by a separate organisation to erect a temporary venue on the burnt-out site was turned down by the city council.

Ms Koren said that she was pleased that there would be nothing on the site this year.

"It is too raw and new. It should be left to stand for a wee while.

"Anyone wanting to go there would be trading on our name and the reputation we built up over 17 years".

However, she said that she would consider an application to use the site next year "when the wounds have healed a little more".

In the long term, Koren would love to move back to the site where the Gilded Balloon cemented its reputation as one of the leading venues on the Fringe.

Gap site

Comedy talent such as Johnny Vegas, Rhona Cameron, Ardal O'Hanlon, Phil Kay and Tommy Tiernan all began their careers playing the Cowgate venue.

However, she knows that she will have a long battle on her hands if she wants to go back.

Edinburgh City Council has published a planning brief for potential new buildings on the gap site.

It makes no mention of the Gilded Balloon or any comedy venue, despite the area being widely regarded as the hub of Fringe activity before the fire.

Ms Koren said she would be drawing the council's attention to its omission.

She said there was a lot of support in Edinburgh and throughout the world for retaining a Fringe venue on the Cowgate site.

Phil Kay
Scots comedian Phil Kay will be playing the venue
Another project that she is keen to get off the ground is her vision of an all-year-round popular arts venue.

The venue would be youth-orientated, offering the kinds of artistic endeavour that appeal to 18 to 25-year-olds.

One idea is "cabaret theatre" where shows are staged in an atmosphere which is far less stuffy and formal than established theatre, pretty much what the Fringe was set up to do 50 years ago.

A feeling that the Gilded Balloon's main rivals on the Fringe, The Pleasance and The Assembly Rooms, were booking more established and safe acts, led Ms Koren to end her association with them.

New kid

The three mega-venues had shared ticketing and promotion but the Gilded Balloon withdrew from the agreement and has instead thrown in its lot in with new kid on the block The Smirnoff Underbelly.

Koren said that the Underbelly operation reminded her of how she was 15 years ago and she wanted to help it develop.

She also said that the Underbelly attracts a late night audience which is complementary to that of the Gilded Balloon.

There is no doubt the Fringe will be different this year for the Gilded Balloon, but it will doubtless still be "late 'n' live".

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