An ace party with a great venue attached

As Edinburgh's premiere comedy venue celebrates its 10th birthday,
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The Independent Culture
Tell Karen Koren that she is formidable and she just laughs. "Am I? I know a lot of people are frightened of me, but I don't know why." Whatever the reason, she seems to get astonishing results. In 1986, Koren - then a 35-year-old PA to the Norwegian consul in Edinburgh - took a seedy, disused department store in the city's Cowgate area, re-christened it after a brand of hat once sold there, and opened it as a fringe venue for her friends to perform in during the festival. The rest, as they say, is history.

Outside Scotland, the name may count for little. But comedians who walk through the Gilded Balloon's doors as promising young things have a better chance here than at most other venues of coming out as stars: Sean Hughes, Eddie Izzard and Phil Kay are among those who made their names here. Ten years on, the Gilded is - along with the far more venerable Pleasance and Assembly Rooms - one of the "big three" fringe venues, and Koren is still at the helm. It could hardly be a happier 10th birthday for her.

Born in Edinburgh of Norwegian parents, she ran away from home, was married with a child by 19, and divorced by 24. Give her a pointy hat and she'd made rather a good Valkyrie. Her habit of bawling out her staff is legendary, so much so that in 1993, Sean Hughes recommended these performances to Independent on Sunday readers as one of 10 things to watch out for at the festival.

She is also, both figuratively and literally, a good person to have on your side in a fight. "I'll always remember the night Karen hit John Connor, the City Limits comedy critic," says the stand-up comedian Kevin Day, "punching him fairly and squarely on the chin at the bar. It was generally rather applauded." But, as Day goes on to say, her feistiness is tempered with something far softer: "I can remember being scared stiff when I first met her. At the same time, though, I almost felt like running up and hugging her. She looked safe, like when you're four and you see your mum and think, 'There's some safety. I'll have a bit of that.' "

It is this combination of mother hen and dominatrix that has been the key to Koren's success: she's tough enough to slug it out in the very cut-and-thrust business of comedy promotion, but also adept at nuzzling comedy's babes, and bringing on new (particularly Scottish) talent. "She's a fringe icon," says Arthur Smith, who, being one himself, should know. "Without Karen, a lot of comedians would never have started. She's very good at giving people opportunities."

And at taking them. Call it luck or instinct, Koren launched the Gilded Balloon at just the right time, "on the cusp of the Rik Mayalls and the Comedy Store and of things really getting started in comedy". She'd already tried and failed a gambling-cum-cabaret club, but in failing she'd got to know figures like Mike Myers, Jeremy Hardy and Arnold Brown, the last of whom was to become crucial to the Gilded's success when he won the Perrier Award in 1987. And right from the start, she marketed the Gilded Balloon in a way that was out of all proportion to its one intimate studio stage and seven shows a day, even insisting on a colour brochure, something almost unheard of in those days of photocopied flyers.

Most importantly in that first year, Koren hit on the idea of Late 'n' Live, the sweaty post-midnight cabaret club, where punters rub shoulders with performers as they drink themselves to oblivion, and where the impromptu has a habit of happening - Sean Hughes getting up and singing "Whole Wild World" by Reckless Eric in completely the wrong key, Jools Holland leaping on stage for a gig, the infamous night the Oxford Revue got the bird from every professional stand-up in the country, that critical punch, and a decade of other unscheduled happenings which, like the Sixties, are remembered by those who probably weren't there. More than anything else, Late 'n' Live helped the Gilded develop its distinctive image and reputation as the comedians' comedy venue.

"There tends to be more of a mix at the Gilded. It hasn't got the formality of Assembly or the student earnestness of the Pleasance," says Kevin Day. Koren, herself, puts it more succinctly: "The Assembly bar is where agents go to do business. Late 'n' Live is where agents come to get drunk." Against the odds, even as the Gilded Balloon has become big business (it now has seven stages) and a sister venue, (Gilded Balloon II, at the old Traverse), that party atmosphere has hardly changed. "It's still a bit sweaty, with cold, damp walls," says Phil Kay. "More often than not, Karen's drinking backstage from a champagne bottle."

It's not always been sparkling wine and roses, however. In 1990, Koren took on the Counting House, a small theatre in nearby Nicolson St, and was badly burnt when it folded two years later. "It was my worst time emotionally. I can understand how men want to kill themselves over money. I had a 25-year lease on a building costing me pounds 500 a week to keep open. I was worried it was all over."

But she and the Gilded staggered on. It was only last year, she says, that she was able to pay herself properly for the first time. Now, she talks of applying for Lottery money to develop the Gilded as an all-year- round venture, part of her passionate and fruitful commitment to Scottish comedy. Last year, she set up a Scottish comedy circuit.

In 1988, she started So You Think You're Funny?, the annual comedy talent competition, which launched the careers of Bruce Morton and Rhona Cameron. "In the early Eighties," says Arnold Brown, "London was the Mecca. There wasn't any indigenous comedy scene here. Now, you actually get comedians coming up and living in Edinburgh. A lot of that is down to Karen."

Not, of course, that people are always grateful. Backstage at Sunday's heat for So You Think You're Funny?, I overhear a contestant muttering as he waits to meet the woman who is the Gilded Balloon. "Bloody women promoters," he says. "They always want to boss you around. And they always want to mother you."