Borge played his first major concert in 1926 at the Danish concert-hall Odd Fellow Palæet (The Odd Fellow Mansion). After a few years as a classical concert pianist, he started his now famous "stand up" act, with the signature blend of piano music and jokes. He married American Elsie Chilton in 1933, the same year he debuted with his revue acts. Borge started touring extensively in Europe, where he began telling anti-Nazi jokes.
When the Nazis occupied Denmark during World War II, Borge was playing a concert in Sweden, and managed to escape to Finland. He traveled to America on the USS American Legion, the last passenger ship that made it out of Europe prior to the war, and arrived August 28 1940 with only 20 dollars, three of which went to the customs fee. Disguised as a sailor, Borge returned to Denmark once during the occupation to visit his dying mother.
From then on, it went quickly for Borge, who won Best New Radio Performer of the Year in 1942. Soon after the award, he was offered film roles with stars such as Frank Sinatra (in Higher and Higher). While hosting The Victor Borge Show on NBC from 1946, he "developed many of his trademarks, including repeatedly announcing his intent to play a piece but getting "distracted" by something or other, making comments about the audience, or discussing the usefulness of Chopin's Minute Waltz as an eggtimer. Or he would start out with some well-known classical piece like Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" op. 27 and suddenly drift into a harmonically suitable pop or jazz tune like "Night and Day" (Cole Porter)."
Borge used physical and visual elements in his live and televised performances. He would play a strange-sounding piano tune from sheet music, looking increasingly confused; turning the sheet upside down, he would then play the actual tune, flashing a joyful smile of accomplishment to the audience (he had, at first, been literally playing the actual tune upside down). When his energetic playing of another song would cause him to fall off the piano bench, he would open the seat lid, take out the two ends of an automotive seatbelt, and buckle himself onto the bench, "for safety". His musical sidekick in the 1950s, Leonid Hambro, was a well-known concert pianist.
He also enjoyed interacting with the audience. Seeing an interested person in the front row, he would ask the person, "Do you like good music?" After an affirmative answer, Borge would take a piece of sheet music from his piano and say "Here is some", and hand it over. Waiting for the laughter to die down, he would say, "That'll be $1.95" (Or whatever the current price might be), before bumping up the asked price if the audience member could indeed read music. If he got no response from the audience after a joke, he would often add "...when this ovation has died down, of course". The delayed punch line to handing the person the sheet music would come when he would reach the end of a number and begin playing the penultimate notes over and over, with a puzzled look. He would then go back to the person in the audience, retrieve the sheet music, tear off a piece of it, stick it on the piano, and play the last couple of notes from it.
Making fun of modern theater, he would sometimes begin a performance by asking if there were any children in the audience. There always were, of course. He would then say, "We do have some children in here that means I can't do the second half in the nude. I'll wear the tie. The long one...The very long one, yes.
In his stage shows in later years, he would include a segment with opera singer Marilyn Mulvey. She would try to sing an aria, and he would react and interrupt, with such antics as slipping off the bench when she would hit a high note. He would also remind her repeatedly not to rest her hand on the piano. After the schtick, the spotlight would fall upon Mulvey and she would sing a serious number with Borge accompanying in the background.
Borge appeared on Toast of the Town hosted by Ed Sullivan several times during 1948, and became a naturalized citizen of the United States the same year. He started the Comedy in Music show at John Golden Theatre in New York City on October 2 1953. Comedy in Music became the longest running one-man show with 849 performances when it closed on January 21 1956, which feat placed it in the Guinness Book of World Records.
After divorcing his wife Elsie, he married Sarabel Sanna Scraper in 1953. Continuing his success with several tours and shows, Borge played with some of the world's most renowned orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic and London Philharmonic. Always modest, he felt very honored when he was invited to conduct the Danish Royal Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1992.
Aside from his musical work, Borge wrote two books, My Favorite Intermissions and My Favorite Comedies in Music (with Robert Sherman), and the autobiography Smilet er den korteste afstand ("The Smile is the Shortest Distance") with Niels-Jørgen Kaiser. Victor Borge continued to tour until his last days, performing up to 60 times per year when he was 90 years old.
Borge died in Greenwich, Connecticut, after more than 75 years of entertaining. He died peacefully, in his sleep, the day after returning from a concert in Denmark and was interred at Putnam Cemetery in Greenwich. A replica of the Danish icon The Little Mermaid sits on a large rock at the gravesite. "It was just his time to go", Frederikke Borge said. "He's been missing my mother terribly."
Victor Borge Hall, located in Scandinavia House in New York City, was named in Borge's honor in 2000, as was Victor Borges Plads ("Victor Borge Square") in Copenhagen in 2002.
He fathered five children (who occasionally performed with him): Sanna, Victor Jr., and Frederikke with Sarabel; and Ronald and Janet with Elsie.
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