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 aims 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 library and memorize them. By age ten, 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
Born Borg Rosenbaum, January 3, 1909, in Copen hagen, Denmark; son of Bernard Rosenbaum (a professional musician) and Frederikke (Lichtinger) Rosenbaum; married Elsie Shilton, 1932 (divorced 1951); married Sarabel Scraper in 1953; children: (first marriage) Roland, Janet, (second marriage) Sanna, Victor Bernhardt, Frederikke; Education: Ostre Borgerdyd Skole (Copenhagen); Royal Danish Music Conservatory (Copenhagen); Vienna Music Conservatory (Austria); studied in Berlin with Frederic Lamond and Egon Petri.
Comedian, Pianist, Conductor. Began performing in 1923. Has appeared with the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Orchestra, the Chicago Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, and the Royal Danish Philharmonic (Copenhagen). Appeared Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall in 1942-43; Victor Borge Show for NBC in 1946; on Broadway in one-man show, Comedy in Music, from 1953-1956.
Awards: Knight First Class, Order of Saint Olav (Norway); Royal Order Daneborg (Denmark); Order of Vasa (Sweden); Brotherhood Award; Wads worth International Award; Georg Jensen Silver Award; Shubert Foundation Award.
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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.
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.
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 Hitler and 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 imprisonment 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, to accompany his wife Borge needed an exit visa, an item difficult to come by with the immense refugee problem the war had created. In a strokeof 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 overcrowding on board ship, Borge disembarked on American soil in August, 1940.
In the new and unfamiliar world in which hefound himself, Borge was a virtual unknown, so like any number of immigrants before him, he re-invented himself. Adopting the Americanized name Victor Borge—prior to this, he had been known by his birth name, Borg Rosenbaum— he 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 Calif ornia where appearances on band leader Rudy Vallee’s radio show exposed him to a national audience for the first time. Americans found the specta-cleof 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 showfor NBC and shortly afterwards, the network signed him to a show of his own, the Victor Borge Show. Although sucha meteoric rise for someone who just afew 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.
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 widely featured on fundraising specials. Borge continues to keep up a schedule that wou Id 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 Murtha Associates, New York, NY.
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BORGE, VICTOR (originally Borge Rosenbaum ; 1909–2000), Danish-U.S. satirical comedian. Born in Copenhagen, Borge was the youngest of five sons of the musicians Frederikke and Bernhard Rosenbaum. His father played first violin with the Royal Danish Philharmonic Orchestra for 35 years and his mother, a pianist, began teaching her son to play the piano when he was three. Recognized as a child prodigy, Borge was awarded a full scholarship to the Royal Danish Academy of Music at the age of nine. He debuted professionally by the age of 13. He made his debut as a comedian at 23.
During the 1930s Borge became one of Scandinavia's most popular artists, developing a unique blend of humor and music. He toured Europe extensively, and by the late 1930s had incorporated anti-Nazi humor into his act. Hitler placed him at the top of his personal list of Enemies of the Fatherland. When the Germans invaded Denmark in 1940, Borge was on a concert tour in Sweden with his American-born wife, Elsie, and they fled to Finland. Through Elsie's American citizenship, the Borges secured one of the last places aboard the last passenger ship to leave Europe before World War ii, and they escaped to America.
Borge created the classic routine known as "phonetic punctuation," in which he inserted bizarre vocal sounds into his monologue to indicate commas, periods, and question marks. Another comedic caper was to slide off the piano bench when he first sat down to play. Affectionately referred to as the "Great Dane," Borge took his blend of classical music and comedy on the road, appearing in nightclubs, concert halls, and New York's Carnegie Hall. In 1946 he hosted nbc Radio's The Victor Borge Show and by 1948 was a frequent guest on Ed Sullivan's radio show Toast of the Town. In 1953 Borge launched his one-man Broadway show Comedy in Music, which ran until 1956. With 849 performances, the show was entered in The Guinness Book of World Records as the Longest-Running One-Man Show.
Borge made his television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1949 and appeared often on the highly rated variety program. He later hosted his own tv comedy-variety program, The Victor Borge Show (1951). He was a guest on many other tv shows as well, hosted by such entertainers as Dean Martin, Andy Williams, and Johnny Carson. In 1956 Borge was nominated for an Emmy for Best Specialty Act but was bested by pantomime legend Marcel *Marceau. In a more serious vein, Borge also performed as soloist and conductor with many leading symphony orchestras. In 1998 he conducted the Royal Danish Philharmonic Orchestra in a Royal Command Performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute.
Dedicated to noble causes, Borge was active in the civil rights movement. In 1963 he and Richard Netter created the Thanks To Scandinavia Scholarship Fund in recognition of the Scandinavian citizens who risked their lives to save thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. The multimillion-dollar fund brought more than a thousand Scandinavian students and scientists to the United States to study and conduct research. Borge was awarded a Medal of Honor by the Statue of Liberty Centennial Committee; he was knighted by Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden; and he was honored by the United States Congress and the United Nations. In 1991 he received the Humor Project's International Humor Treasure award, and in 2000 was the first person selected for the Kennedy Center Honors.
Borge released a number of recordings and video programs, including The Best of Victor Borge, a collection of his classic routines. It sold three million copies worldwide during its first year.
Borge co-wrote several books with Robert Sherman, among them My Favorite Intermissions (1971), Victor Borge's My Favorite Comedies in Music (1980), and Borge's Musical Briefs (1982).
[Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]
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