Børge Rosenbaum (/ˈbɔrɡə/BOR-gə; 3 January 1909 – 23 December 2000) — stage name Victor Borge — was a successful Danish comedian, conductor and pianist who achieved great popularity in radio and television in the United States and Europe. His unique and appealing blend of music and comedy earned him such affectionate sobriquets as "The Clown Prince of Denmark", "The Unmelancholy Dane", and "The Great Dane".
Borge played his first major concert in 1926 at the Danish concert-hall Odd Fellow Palæet (The Odd Fellow's Lodge building). 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 neutral ship to make it out of Petsamo, Finland, and arrived 28 August 1940, with only $20 (about $337 today), with $3 (about $50.5 today) going 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 did not 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 program.
From then on, fame rose 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 beginning in 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 egg timer. He would also start out with some well-known classical piece like Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" and suddenly move into a harmonically suitable pop or jazz tune like Cole Porter's "Night and Day" or "Happy Birthday to You".
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 onomatopoeic 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", "tennis" becomes "elevennis", "I ate a tenderloin with my fork and so on and so forth" becomes "'I nine an elevenderloin with my five'k' and so on and so fifth").
Borge performing before an audience in 1957.
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 seat belt, and buckle himself onto the bench, "for safety." Conducting an orchestra, he might stop and order a violinist who had played a sour note to get off the stage, then resume the performance and have the other members of the section move up to fill the empty seat while they were still playing. From off stage would come the sound of a gunshot. His musical sidekick in the 1950s, Leonid Hambro, was a well-known concert pianist. In 1968, classical pianist Şahan Arzruni joined him as his straight man, performing together on one piano a version of Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody, considered a musical-comedic classic.
He also enjoyed interacting with the audience. Seeing an interested person in the front row, he would ask them, "Do you like good music?" or "Do you care for piano 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. After the audience's laughter died down, he would say, "That'll be $1.95" (or whatever the current price might be). He would then ask whether the audience member could read music; if the member said yes, he would ask a higher price. 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 sternly order them out, 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. (pause) The long one. (pause) 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 falling off the bench in "surprise" when she hit a high note. He would also remind her repeatedly not to rest her hand on the piano. After the routine, the spotlight would fall upon Mulvey and she would sing a serious number with Borge accompanying in the background.
His later television appearances included 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. He appeared several times on Sesame Street and was a guest star during the fourth season of The Muppet Show.
Victor Borge continued to tour until his last days, performing up to 60 times per year when he was 90 years old.
Borge made several appearances on the long-running TV show What's My Line?, both as a celebrity panelist, and as a contestant with the occupation "poultry farmer"; Starting in the 1950s, as a businessman, Borge raised and popularized Rock Cornish game hens.
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.
Aside from his musical work, Borge wrote three books, My Favorite Intermissions and My Favorite Comedies in Music (both with Robert Sherman), and the autobiography Smilet er den korteste afstand ("The Smile is the Shortest Distance") with Niels-Jørgen Kaiser.
In 1979, Borge founded the American Pianists Association (then called the Beethoven Foundation) with Julius Bloom and Anthony P. Habig. The American Pianists Association now produces two major piano competitions: the Classical Fellowship Awards and the Jazz Fellowship Awards.
He married his first wife, Elsie Chilton, in 1933. After divorcing Elsie, he married Sarabel Sanna Scraper in 1953, and they stayed married until her death at the age of 83 in September 2000.
Borge fathered five children (who occasionally performed with him): Ronald Borge and Janet Crowle (adopted ) with Elsie Chilton, and Sanna Feirstein, Victor Bernhard (Vebe) Jr., and Frederikke (Rikke) Borge with Sarabel.
Borge died in Greenwich, Connecticut, at the age of 91, after more than 75 years of entertaining. He died peacefully in his sleep a day after returning from a concert in Denmark. "It was just his time to go", Frederikke Borge said. "He's been missing my mother terribly." According to his wish, to mark his connection to both the United States and Denmark, a part of Victor Borge's ashes is interred at Putnam Cemetery in Greenwich, with a replica of Danish icon The Little Mermaid sitting on a large rock at the gravesite, the other part in Western Jewish Cemetery (Mosaisk Vestre Begravelsesplads), Copenhagen, Denmark.
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. Celebrating Borge's centennial in 2009 a statue was erected on the square.
^"Det Kongelige Teater – Kort fortalt" (in Danish). Retrieved 3 October 2010. "My father played in the orchestra for more than 30 years – we couldn't recognise him, when he came home. (Om Bernhard Rosenbaum, som var bratschist i Kapellet fra 1888–1919 sagde Victor Borge: "Min far spillede i Kapellet i over 30 år – vi kunne heller ikke kende ham, da han kom hjem".)"
^Nielsen Business Media, Inc. (29 April 1944). Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. p. 25. ISSN0006-2510. Retrieved 3 October 2010. "Victor Borge and his dead-pan interpretations of phonetic punctuation and gags clicked soundly with the pew-sitters."
^Young, Mark (2 March 1998). The Guinness Book of World Records 1998. Bantam Books. p. 439. ISBN978-0-553-57895-9. Retrieved 3 October 2010. "The longest run of one-man shows is 849, by Victor Borge (Denmark) in his Comedy in Music from October 2, 1953 through 21 January 1956 at the Golden Theater, Broadway, New York City."
^"Paid Notice – Deaths BORGE, VICTOR – Paid Death Notice – NYTimes.com:". The New York Times. 26 December 2000. Retrieved 2 October 2010. "Thanks To Scandinavia is profoundly saddened by the passing of its co-founder and National Chairman Victor Borge. Escaping from Denmark in 1940 to freedom in the US just ahead of the Nazi invasion, Mr. Borge continually showed vigorous appreciation for the opportunities provided by both his native country and his adopted land. Among those efforts -Thanks To Scandinavia, a scholarship fund created in 1963 for Scandinavian students and doctors which stands as a perpetual American thank you to Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden for the protection and rescue heroically offered Scandinavian Jews and others during World War II. This time Victor, this last time, we say thanks to you for your generosity of spirit, your friendship, your legendary humor, your sublime musicianship and your eloquent devotion to the wellbeing of your fellow man."
^"Paid Notice – Deaths BORGE, VICTOR – Paid Death Notice – NYTimes.com:". The New York Times. 27 December 2000. Retrieved 2 October 2010. "The American Jewish Committee remembers with great affection and enduring admiration Victor Borge, a man who embodied the rare and wonderful qualities of genuine humor, deep compassion, and true humanity. We are especially grateful for Mr. Borge's gift of performance that enabled us to partake of his exceptional spirit and enriched our lives. AJC was deeply honored to recently become affiliated with Thanks To Scandinavia, the scholarship fund founded by Mr. Borge and New York attorney Richard Netter to thank Scandinavians for rescuing Jews during the Second World War. Through the foundation, we are committed to keeping Mr. Borge's memory-and his vision-vibrant for future generations."
^"Danish Rabbi Will Visit Area Temple". Hartford Courant. 15 September 1997. Retrieved 3 October 2010. "[Bent Melchior] will also speak at Trinity College and, along with Victor Borge, receive an honorary degree from the college."
^"Victor Borge / Explore the Arts – The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts:". Retrieved 3 October 2010. "He looks like a elder statesman and speaks with the charming accents of a middle European fairytale kingdom, but the whole world knows him as the Great Dane. Victor Borge's unique combination of concert pianist and sit-down comedian – an intoxicating mixture of melodies and mirth – has made him a living legend for most of the 20th century. His ability to puncture the pretensions of humanity in general, musicians in particular, whether he's lampooning stuffy conductors or grandiose concert pianists, remains undiminished, seventy years after his professional debut. As every good musician and comic knows, it's all in the timing and Borge is a master. He holds the Guinness Book of Records citation for longest-running one-man show in the history of the theater, with 849 performances on Broadway of his "Comedy in Music," which began in 1952."
^"Nye og ændrede vejnavne 2001–2003" (in Danish). Retrieved 3 October 2010. "Victor Borges Plads. Benævnelse for en plads beliggende i J.E. Ohlsensgades udmunding i Nordre Frihavnsgade. Besluttet i Bygge- og Teknikudvalget den 9. oktober 2002."
^Nielsen Business Media, Inc. (12 June 1954). Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. p. 22. ISSN0006-2510. Retrieved 3 October 2010.
^National Collegiate Players (1955). The Players magazine. National Collegiate Players. p. 83. Retrieved 3 October 2010.
^Borges first performance in Denmark since World War II recorded 12 August 1958 in the Copenhagen concert-hall Odd Fellow Palæet (The Odd Fellow's Lodge building). Listen The 32 minutes show was sponsored by FONA, tansmitted by the recently established Radio Mercur to 275.000 listeners and subsequently sold as a 10'' LP for kroner 19.50.
^Music and dance. Australian Musical News Publishing Co. 32 December 1957. p. 27. Retrieved 3 October 2010.Check date values in: |date= (help)
^Nielsen Business Media, Inc. (27 July 1959). Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. p. 28. ISSN0006-2510. Retrieved 3 October 2010.
^Nielsen Business Media, Inc. (28 April 1962). Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. p. 30. ISSN0006-2510. Retrieved 2 October 2010.
^Mackenzie, Sir Compton; Stone, Christopher (1963). Gramophone. General Gramophone Publications Ltd. p. 23. Retrieved 3 October 2010.