Victor Borge – the Great Dane They laughed when he sat down to play
Victor Borge (pronounced Bor-ga) just celebrated his 91st birthday. [This was written at the beginning of January, 2000.] Only a month earlier he was honored at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. Borge usually makes light of the honors he has received: “I have been knighted in all the Scandinavian countries. That makes me a weekend – an extended weekend.”
Borge is, of course, far more. Unique in both classical music and comedy, Borge is a very good pianist who is also very funny.
Borge was born Borge Rosenbaum on January 3, 1909, in Copenhagen, Denmark. His father, Bernhard Rosebaum, was a musician in the Royal Danish Chapel, and his mother introduced him to the piano when he was three. He was regarded as a prodigy and given a scholarship at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. Still in his teens, he earned scholarships to study with noted pianists in Vienna and Berlin. He made his public debut on piano in 1926, gaining immediate recognition.
During the next dozen years Borge became one of Denmark’s most popular performers, starting out as a classical pianist but soon inserting comedic touches which developed into a unique blend of humor and music. He made his revue debut in 1933 and his film debut in 1937.
As a Jew, Borge did not care for the events transpiring next door in Germany. Indeed, he incorporated his feelings into his act, asking his audience (in Danish), “What’s the difference between a Nazi and a dog? A Nazi lifts his arm.” Such barbs forced him to flee Denmark just ahead of the Nazi invasion, to give performances in Sweden which he had prudently booked. From there he went to Finland, and he escaped to the United States on the S.S. American Legion, the last American passenger ship to leave Northern Europe before World War II.
Borge was only one of many talented Jewish musicians and artists who fled Europe for the United States at that time, seeking a refuge from Nazi genocide and enriching the musical and artistic culture of America. It made for competition between the immigrants.
“When I came to America, who needed a pianist?” Borge recalls. “I was not at that time in the league. I was a good pianist, but I wouldn’t go to Carnegie Hall and try to fool anybody. But what did they want, a pianist who was not Horowitz when they already had Horowitz? So I used my ability to influence people to laugh and enjoy the way I combined music and words.”
Not everyone was ready for this, classical music not being known for its comedy. At one of his first American auditions Borge performed one of his (now) classic bits: He began playing a strange waltz which seemed to make no musical sense. Then he paused to turn the sheet music over, and began playing it again, smiling to himself and nodding at the audience. When played right side up, the music was revealed to be the “Blue Danube.”
But those conducting the audition didn’t get it. “We can’t use you,” they told Borge. “You don’t even read music.” The humor was lost on them.
Fortunately for Borge, scouts from the Bing Crosby radio show heard Borge “warming up” the audience for Rudy Vallee’s radio show in 1941. Borge's act involved reading a story, including each punctuation mark, to which he assigned a sound. Borge was booked for Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall.
Carroll Carroll, chief writer for Bing Crosby, says, “Victor agreed that he could do the spot in 12 minutes. That is, we thought he agreed. He spoke almost no English and only understood, if anything, what he chose to. Victor came on and repeated the punctuation routine and got the same earthquake-like reaction. After 12 minutes he was still going. We lost a commercial. He kept right on going. We lost a Crosby song. Then we lost a guest spot and another Crosby song and another commercial and the closing theme and we went off the air with people howling and applauding Borge. A telephone call came from New York telling us to sign the guy for as long as possible.”
Borge was a regular on the Crosby show for the next 56 weeks. Early in 1943 he got his own five-minute daily show on the NBC Blue network. He made his concert debut in 1945, and began his famous one man show in 1953.
While better known to the public as a comedian, Borge remains no slouch at the piano. As music critic Jacob Siskind put it, “Borge is such a cut-up, you don’t expect him to play with that incredible sensitivity that is his … the tone is pure gold.” Violinist and conductor Henri Temianka adds, “There is more to Borge’s piano playing than he allows us to hear. But in those fleeting moments we recognize an elegance of touch, a limpidity, a grace, a transparency, a talent that sets apart the few from the many.”
Every season Borge performs with and leads a number of the world’s better orchestras. Some of his appearances have actually rescued the season financially for those orchestras.
Borge is famous for using his piano as a prop, playing only a few notes before launching into a verbal excursion. Recently Borge released The Two Sides of Victor Borge on CD. One “side” is devoted to his piano – allowing listeners to actually hear him play “straight” – while the other captures his comedy. There are also two videos available. The Best of Victor Borge – which has already sold nearly 3 million copies – is available by mail order at 1-800-66 MUSIC. And Lost Episodes of Victor Borge is available from Amazon.com.
[I regret to say that Victor Borge died on December 23, 2000. He was almost 92. He will be missed.]