Victor Borge (pronounced "BOR-guh"; January 3 1909 – December 23 2000) was a Danish-American humorist, entertainer and pianist, affectionately known as the Clown Prince of Denmark and the Great Dane.
Early life and career
Born Børge Rosenbaum
, into a Jewish
family. His parents, Bernhard and Frederikke Rosenbaum, were both musicians (his father was a violinist in the Royal Danish Chapel, and his mother played piano), Borge took up piano like his mother at the age of 3, and it was soon apparent that he was a prodigy. He gave his first piano recital when he was 8 years old, and in 1918 was awarded a full scholarship at the Royal Danish Academy of Music
, studying under Olivo Krause
. Later on, he was taught by Victor Schiøler
's student Frederic Lamond
, and Busoni
's pupil Egon Petri
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.
Move to America
Even though Borge didn't speak a word of English upon arrival, he quickly managed to adapt his jokes to the American audience, learning English by watching movies. He took the name of Victor Borge, and, in 1941, he started on Rudy Vallee
's radio show, but was hired soon after by Bing Crosby
for his Kraft Music Hall
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)."
Among Borge's other famous routines is the "Phonetic Punctuation" routine, in which he recites a story, with full punctuation
(comma, period, exclamation mark, etc.) as exaggerated onomatopoetic sounds. Another is his "Inflationary Language
", where he incremented numbers embedded in words, whether they are visible or not ("once upon a time" becomes "twice upon a time", "wonderful" becomes "twoderful", "forehead" becomes "fivehead", etc).
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.
Borge helped start several trust funds, including the Thanks to Scandinavia Fund
, which was started in dedication to those who helped the Jews escape the German persecution during the war. Borge received Kennedy Center Honors
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.
- (Referring to the piano's natural shape) Isn't it a shame when those big fat opera singers lean against the pianos and bend them?
- I love this piano... I get about 4 sonatas to a gallon of red wine on it...
- ... Very expensive these pianos... It's not mine! But they come in a six pack!
- I have been looking forward to this evening's performance ever since... 7:30... two weeks ago.
- I'd like to thank my parents for making this night possible. And my children for making it necessary.
- I normally don't do requests. Unless, of course, I have been asked to do so.
- I don't mind growing old. I'm just not used to it.
- Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.
- Occasionally, a finger comes up to wipe a tear [of laughter] from the eye... and that's my reward... the rest goes to the government.
- I only know two pieces, one is 'Clair de Lune', the other one isn't.
- The difference between a violin and a viola is that a viola burns longer.
- When you go home, please drive home extremely carefully. Extremely carefully. Because I walk in my sleep!
- It's your language, I'm just trying to use it...
- Giuseppe Verdi. Joe Green to you.
- I'm going to play it with both hands so it will end faster.
- I'm Lou Borg.
- You may not be aware of this but Leonard Bernstein won another award, for explaining the music of Igor Stravinsky... to Igor Stravinsky!
- There will be no dancing during this number... unless you absolutely have to!
- I'm going to play a piece...by a Danish composer. Umm... Mozart. Hans Christian Mozart!
- (Holding someone's red tie) Oh, I thought you were bleeding.
- We have a neighbour, well who doesn't...but he's our next window neighbour, because he does not have a door at that end of the house!
- My grandfather gave me this watch...a few minutes before he died...for 20 bucks...plus tax!
- The soprano... is about four and a half feet tall... Lying down.
- And now, Brahms! Joey Brahms! ...Brahms spelled backwards: "Smharb."
- One afternoon, when I was four years old, my father came home, and he found me in the living room in front of a roaring fire, which made him very angry. Because we didn't have a fireplace.
- Before we start, the Baldwin Piano Company has asked me to say that this is a Steinway Piano [or vice versa].
- (Inspecting the piano) Hmmm… Steinway & Sons. Didn't even know he was married.
- Ignaz Friedman's dead now—I sincerely hope, because they buried him about 28 years ago.
- There are three Bachs. Johann, Sebastian and Offen.
- It's Fliszt, not F. Liszt. Do you say M. Ozart?
- It is important to always, always fasten your seat belt wherever you play.
- Excuse me Ma'am, are you laying eggs? (Spoken in "Page-Turner")
- And now, in honour of the 150th anniversary of Beethoven's death, I would like to play "Clear the Saloon", er, "Clair de Lune", by Debussy. I don't play Beethoven so well, but I play Debussy very badly, and Beethoven would have liked that.
- [In a lecture on Mozart's Magic Figaro]"...and after that the Chorus comes in...nobody knows WHY...besides Mozart of course...and he's dead."
Appearances in popular culture
- Borge is a guest actor in The Man from U.N.C.L.E "The Surburbia Affair" (1967).
- In 1976, Borge demonstrated his talents in comedy and in playing the piano when he and Richard Carpenter did a humorous duet on the piano.
- Borge made use of his "Phonetic Punctuation" routine on The Electric Company in a filmed sketch; He would also use it on the record to follow during the "Punctuation" song.
- Borge also guest starred many times on Sesame Street.
- Borge made several appearances on The Dean Martin Show.
- He was a guest on the fourth season of The Muppet Show.
- Phonetic Punctuation (Parts 1 and 2) (78rpm)
- Blue Serenade/A Lesson In Composition (78rpm)
- Brahms’ Lullaby/Grieg Rhapsody (78rpm)
- Mozart Opera By Borge/All The Things You Are (78rpm)
- Brahms, Bizet and Borge
- Comedy in Music (1954, Columbia Records CL-554, re-released on CD in 1999)
- Caught in the Act (1955 Columbia Records CL-646, re-released on CD in 1995)
- Borge's Back (MGM E-3995)
- Victor Borge (1962, MGM SE-3995P)
- Great Moments of Comedy (1964, Verve V/V6 15044 - a re-issue of Borge's Back)
- Hans Christian Andersen (1966 Decca DL-34406)
- 13 Pianos Live in Concert (1975 Telefunken-Decca LC-0366)
- Adventures of Piccolo, Saxie & Co. (Columbia Records CL-1223)
- Concert Favorites (Columbia Records CL-1305)
- A Victor Borge Program (Columbia Records CL-6013)
- My Favorite Intervals (Pye 502)
- Victor Borge - Live(!) (Re-released on CD in 1992 - Sony Masterworks MDK 48482)
- Two Sides of Victor Borge (1998)