Borge, Victor (1909—)

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Borge, Victor (1909—)

Funny man of the piano, Victor Borge has enjoyed a seven-decade-long international career as a witty pianist-raconteur and popular radio, film, and television personality. His spontaneous comic talents, slapstick comedy routines, and satirical spoofs of classical music mannerisms made him one of the most popular and highest paid entertainers during the early 1940s. His 1950s Broadway show still holds a place in The Guiness Book of World Records as the longest running one-man show in theater history. Borge's ability to make light-hearted fun out of "serious" concert music has endeared him to audiences who might otherwise feel intimidated or bored by the traditional decorum of classical music repertoire and presentation.

BØrge Rosenbaum (his name before emigrating to the United States) was born on January 3, 1909, in Copenhagen, Denmark. His mother was a pianist, and his father was a violinist with the Royal Danish Philharmonic and Opera orchestras for 35 years ("When he finally came home, my mother hardly recognized him!"). A child prodigy, Rosenbaum studied piano at the Royal Danish Music Conservatory, and later studied with Frederic Lamond and Egon Petri in Berlin. Following his 1926 recital debut in Copenhagen, he became one of Denmark's most popular concert pianists during the 1930s.

Partly to circumvent his recurring stage fright, Borge developed a performance style combining classical music and quirky comedy. This appealing "cross-over" combination established him as a leading nightclub, stage, and film personality in Scandinavia. He had his revue debut in 1933, and in 1937 made the first of his six pre-World War II Danish films. Because of his Jewish background and his pointed satirical critiques of the Nazi regime, Borge was blacklisted and forced to flee Europe when the Germans invaded Denmark in 1940. He traveled to New York with his first wife, Elsie Shilton, an American citizen, and became a United States citizen himself in 1948. This first marriage ended in divorce in 1951, and Borge married again in 1953; he has five children and numerous grandchildren.

After an unsuccessful first appearance in a 1941 Broadway revue, Borge's comic talents were recognized on bandleader Rudy Vallee's radio show the same year. One of Borge's earliest successes was his trademark "phonetic pronunciation" act, in which non-verbal sounds indicate punctuation marks in a recited text. This act led to a regular slot on Bing Crosby's Kraft Music Hall radio show during the next two years (totaling 54 appearances). In 1943, Borge spoofed himself in a Hollywood film, playing con man "Sir Victor Fitzroy Victor, K.B.O.B.E." in RKO's Higher and Higher, which also featured Frank Sinatra in his first starring role. Borge had his own NBC radio show in 1946, and his one-man Comedy in Music show enjoyed a phenomenal run at the Golden Theatre in New York from 1953 to 1956, running a record-setting 849 performances.

Borge's hilarious comedy routines include his demonstration of how modern composers write song hits (by cutting and pasting music from the old masters), his insertion of "Happy Birthday" into serious classical piano works, his falls off the piano bench at the start of the Tchaikovsky concerto, or his constant admonition to singers not to lean on his instrument (which causes the grand piano's curved indentation). Raising the piano lid to begin a performance, he mutters, "Maybe we should get some fresh air in here."

Also known for saying that "the smile is the shortest distance between people," Borge has been called "The Great Dane" for his charitable contributions and international goodwill efforts. To acknowledge the heroism of Scandinavians who sheltered persecuted Jews during the Holocaust, he founded the Thanks to Scandinavia Foundation in 1963. Borge has been honored by the United States Congress and the United Nations, and knighted by the five Scandinavian nations.

—Ivan Raykoff

Further Reading:

Borge, Victor. Victor Borge: An Autobiography (forthcoming English translation).

Borge, Victor, and Robert Sherman. My Favorite Comedies in Music. New York, Franklin Watts, 1981.

——. My Favorite Intermissions. Garden City New York, Doubleday, 1971.