Borge, Victor (Contemporary Musicians)
The scene is as timeless as its performer. A classical pianist in an immaculate tuxedo walks across the stage of a hushed concert hall. Reaching his waiting piano, he sits down with quiet majesty and falls over backward with a loud crash. The audience titters. The pianist gets to his feet, apparently unruffled, rights the bench, and drops the piano lid on his hand, knocking over his microphone stand in the process. The audience laughs. Shaken but undaunted, the pianist nervously adjusts the sheet music in front of him which unaccountably flies up in the air to land all over the stage. The audience howls. In sheer desperation, he launches into a Beethoven sonata, pounding the keys faster and faster, losing control of the tempo, and suddenly stops abruptly in mid-piece, turns to the audience and exhales smoke. The audience is convulsed with laughter.
For many classical musicians, such a nightmarish scenario might tempt them quit the stage permanently, but for Danish musician and comedian Victor Borge, it has been the foundation for a career. For over half a century, Borge has entertained audiences worldwide with a mix of slapstick pratfalls, absurd monologues in heavily accented English, and over-the-top performances of classical standards, almost, but not quite, disguising his complete mastery of the "serious" classical music idiom. Sly satirizing the starch-collared mannerisms of classical performances, Borge alms to make classical music accessible by emphasizing its humorous aspects without detracting from its beauty. Ironically, in doing so he has become one of the most widely recognized classical musicians in the world today.
Born Borg Rosenbaum in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1909, Victor Borge was the youngest son of Bernard Rosenbaum, a viola player in the Royal Danish Philharmonic Orchestra, and the former Frederikke Lichtinger, a gifted pianist. As might be expected for a family of musicians, Borge was immersed in music almost from birth. He began reading music at age four and by age eight, had performed his first piano recital. The young Borge often accompanied his father to his job at the opera house and became fascinated with conducting, so much so that he would borrow symphony scores from the libraryand memorize them. By ageten, his musical gifts were widely evident and he received a scholarship to study at the Royal Danish Music Conservatory with the leading Danish pianist of the era, Victor Schioler.
In tandem with his musical ability, Borge also developed an acute comic sensibility. Often asked to perform at private parties from an early age, Borge would play practical jokes on his audience by spontaneously improvising musical pieces with absurd titles such as "Beethoven's Sonata no. 112" and then listen gleefully as audience members commented that the piece was one of their favorites. At school, he became known for his pranks and abilities as a burlesque artist, inventing skits that mocked the rigid standards of public conduct that were the norm for the early twentieth century Denmark.
The Beginnings of a Comedie Calling
In his first major public appearance at age fourteen, Borge was called upon to perform the piano solo for Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra. Looking over the audience, as he recalled in a Saturday Evening Post Article, he saw that "half of them were falling asleep, and the other half sat gravely, like witnesses at an execution. It suddenly dawned on me that the whole thing was extremely funny." He surreptitiously winked at the audience; in reaction to their titters orchestra began to play faster. The disconcerted conductor lost his place in the score, so Borge stopped playing, walked over to the podium, and pointed out where he should be. The audience response was howls of laughter and the seed for Borge's future as a comedian was planted.
For the moment, however, he continued his training to be a "serious" classical musician. At sixteen, Borge left Denmark on a scholarship to study at the Vienna Music Conservatory. From there, he went on to Berlin and apprenticed with Frederic Lamond and Egon Petri, two of the most prominent piano teachers of the time. Lamond did not particularly encourage the young pianist, but Petri did, seeing some raw talent in his student. As Borge recalled in a New York Times article, Petri "gave me a quality of finesse I never had.... I was on my way to becoming a first class concert pianist."
In 1932, he returned to Denmark to pursue a full-time career in music, but as chance would have it, he was destined for other things. Although Borge's piano playing was critically praised, he suffered from dehabilitating attacks of stage fright. To counter-act this potentially career-threatening problem, he started engaging the audience in informal comedy routines and bantering between pieces. Borge's quick wit and keen sense of the absurd was highly appealing to his listeners and this aspect of his performances came to overshadow his playing. By the late 1930s, he had become one of the most successful nightclub acts in Denmark, as well as appearing in six films, commanding the highest salary of any Danish entertainer.
Forced to Flee
Events taking place on the world stage, however, would cast a pall on Borge's rising career. While in Berlin, he had witnessed the emergence of the Nazi party. Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, marked by aggressive rhetoric toward Germany's neighbors and strident anti-Semitic propaganda, was very disturbing to Borge, both as a Dane and as a member of Denmark's small Jewish minority. He began to include pointed satirical references to Hitlerand Germany in his act, sparking threats from Danish Nazi sympathizers. When Germany forced Denmark to sign a non-aggression pact, Borge sarcastically commented, "How nice. Now the Germans can sleep in peace, secure from the threat of Danish aggression." In April, 1940, the German army occupied Denmark. Borge's name figured prominently on a list of Danish intellectuals and artists to be arrested, but fortunately when Gestapo agents appeared at his house in Copenhagen, he was on tour in Sweden.
Borge had narrowly escaped im prisonment or worse, but the future in war-torn Europe looked bleak. As his wife, Elsie, was an American citizen, she was able to book passage for the two on the last ship leaving from Northern Scandinavia for the then neutral United States. However, toaccompany his wife Borge needed an exit visa, an item difficult to come by with the immense refugee problem the war had created. Ina stroke of good luck, the American consul in Stockholm happened to be a fan of his, so Borge was able to obtain the papers he needed and catch the boat just as the gangplank was being pulled up. After a nerve-wracking voyage that included passing through mine fields and severe over crowding on board ship, Borge disembarked on American soil in August, 1940.
A Danish Comedian Reinvents Himself
In the new and unfamiliar world in which he found himself, Borge was a virtual unknown, so like any number of immigrants before him, he re-invented himself. Adopting the Americanized name Victor Borgerior to this, he had been known by his birth name, Borg Rosenbaume applied himself to reading comic strips and watching gangster films so as to grasp the idiosyncracies of American speech and translate his Danish comedy routine into English. The complexities of the new language, which Borge nonetheless managed to pick up quickly, became a staple of his stage act and remain so to this day. His deliberate mispronunciations of words, coupled with "phonetic punctuation," a system of nonverbal sounds to indicate commas, periods, and other elements of punctuation would prove to be enormously popular.
Borge's first performance on the American stage however, a small part in a 1941 Ed Sullivan Broadway revue, was anything but encouraging. Rattled by last minute changes in his laboriously perfected act, Borge forgot his lines and was promptly fired. He was undiscouraged, performing in Florida to good reviews and then making his way to California where appearances on band leader Rudy Vallee's radio show exposed him to a national audience for the first time. Americans found the spectacle of an apparently serious classical musician stopping in mid-piece to engage in irreverent asides in a deep Scandinavian accent hilarious and talent scouts for Bing Crosby's show, Kraft Music Hall, lost no time in signing Borge. He would go on to perform fifty-four times on Crosby's show and become one of the most popular and highest paid nightclub performers of the early 1940s, on a par with Red Skelton, Henny Youngman, and George Burns.
By 1945, Borge was a substitute host on a weekly radio show for NBC and shortly afterwards, the network signed him to a show of his own, the Victor Borge Show. Although such a meteoric rise for someone who just a few years before had been a refugee from the Nazis was astounding, Borge was still not satisfied. Convinced that the constrictions of performing within the format of a radio show or nightclub act stifled his creativity, he tended from the late 1940s on to appear exclusively before live audiences in concert halls and auditoriums, a forum in which he was free to set his own material and time limits. Left to his own devices, he flourished, developing many of the routines that would be his trademark for the next half century.
Apart from the delightfully low-brow satire of high culture that was the basis for his act, perhaps the strongest element of Borge's appeal was the spontaneity with which he carried things off, particularly as he became more comfortable in his adopted language. As he explained in a Piano Quarterly interview, "On stage I'm like a bat throwing out my radar. I listen to those sounds and they tell me the direction I should fly." Audience members arriving late, his dog accidentally following him on to the stage, a bug landing on his nose as he played, all provided a focal point from which to improvise absurdly witty monologues. Musically he was just as creative, starting a serious piece by Beethoven, playing a few bars, and then switching into "Happy Birthday." Although Borge did have some standard numbers, he was largely able to give the impression that he was making his routine up as he went along, a feature which kept his clowning fresh in the eyes of his audience.
Sets a World Record
On October 2, 1953, Borge opened as a one-man show on Broadway under the title Comedy in Music. It was a risky move and the show was expected to close after only a few performances. Afflicted with severe opening night jitters, Borge was convinced that the show was a flop; it was not until he received glowing press reviews the next morning that he realized he might have something. Comedy in Music proceeded to run almost three years with some 849 performances, ranking to this day in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest running one-man show in theatrical history. At the end of the show's Broadway run, Borge took it back on the road and toured worldwide for the next four decades.
Perhaps because of his reputation as a comedian, it is not always recognized that Borge is a great musician in his own right. His childhood fascination with conducting led him to begin appearing from the mid-1970s on as a guest conductor with a number of prominent orchestras including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the London Philharmonic. But it is his piano playing, on those occasions when he does not stop halfway through a piece to crack jokes, that transmits his deep feel and understanding for music. Borge, a throwback to the golden era of piano of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, retains a graceful touch and lyricism to his playing, which a New York Times music critic described as "warm, rich, highly nuanced... [reflecting] a school of piano playing that is almost extinct."
In a testament to the longevity and appeal of his gifts, Borge continued to appear into the late 1990s. One of the last great comedians from the era of vaudeville and burlesque, his quirky sense of humor seems to appeal to audiences as much as ever, even after fifty years of performing essentially the same act. A 1990 video of a Borge performance entitled The Best of Victor Borge sold over 2,600,000 copies, and a 1993 PBS special, Victor Borge: Then&Now" has been widelyfeatured on fundraising specials. Borge continues to keep up a schedule that would tire out someone half his age. When asked by a New York Times interviewer about this, he responded, "Why not...? I know life. I have had a full measure of experience. Shouldn't I take advantage of it? The fruit is on the tree. Should I let it rot?"
An Evening with Victor Borge, Columbia, 1948.
The Blue Serenade, Columbia, 1948.
Comedy in Music: Vol. II, Columbia, 1954.
Comedy in Music: Vol. I, Columbia, 1954.
Victor Borge Plays and Conducts Concert Favorites, Columbia, 1959.
The Adventures of Piccolo, Saxie and Company, Columbia, 1959.
Great Memories from Old Time Radio, Columbia Musical Treasuries, 1960.
Borgering on Genius, MGM, 1962.
Victor Borge at His Best, PRT Records, 1972.
Borge at His Best, PRT Records, 1972.
Thirteen Pianos Live in Concert, Telefunken, 1975.
The Two Sides of Victor Borge, Borge Productions, 1987.
Live at the London Palladium, Marble Arch, 1991.
Live, Sony, 1992.
Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1996.
Musical America, January 1989.
New York Times, December 21, 1984; December 5, 1989.
Piano Quarterly, Vol. no. 130, 1985.
Saturday Evening Post, February 16, 1957.
Symphony Magazine, June/July 1981.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Gurtman and M urtha Associates, New York, NY.