Børge Rosenbaum (3 January 1909 – 23 December 2000), Danish comedian, conductor, and pianist who achieved great popularity in radio and television in the United States and Europe. His blend of music and comedy earned him the nicknames The Clown Prince of Denmark, The Unmelancholy Dane, and The Great Dane.
Victor Borge was not the first comedian to have contrived his act from sending up or mutilating serious music. But he did it with more style than anyone else, in a way which had more widespread and long-lived appeal. He continued to play his piano, or hilariously failed to play his piano, on tours of the United States, where he mainly lived, and Europe, from where he originated, well into his 80s.
Borge always claimed that his deadpan humour succeeded because it was simple and drawn straight from life. If so, its simplicity was that of genius, of being able to impose a thread of distorted but impregnable logic on to almost any set of circumstances.
"What," one TV interviewer asked, "are you doing next?" "I guess I'll be going straight to the bathroom." Another interviewer asked why he had bought a farm in Portugal. "Someone," he replied, "had to buy a farm in Portugal." Even the ageing process was turned into a dismissive aside: "It is so much better than the alternative."
Borge the comic, whose command of the piano was (on stage) liable to grotesque accident, so that a simple piano stool could narrowly escape being a disaster area, turned even his imperilled past as a Danish Jew into the humour of mock conceit: "Only Churchill and me knew how dangerous Hitler was. Churchill was trying to save Europe, and I was trying to save myself."
Born in Copenhagen, Borge was the son of a violinist with the Royal Danish Philharmonic. His mother introduced him to the piano from the age of three, and he made his stage debut at the age of eight. There was one great problem which he had to face in his early career - the quality of the on-site pianos he had to play. Some were dreadful, so he developed tricks for playing them not taught by conventional teachers. Out of that situation came his humorous movements and asides, always in a distinctive, unctuous, throwaway voice.
By the outbreak of the second world war, Borge was a reasonably successful pianist and musical satirist in Denmark, well known for his guying of Hitler and other Nazis. When the Germans invaded Denmark, newspapers reported that his name was at the head of those destined for extermination. Fortunately for Borge, two Russian diplomats who had been amused by his act smuggled him aboard an American ship bound for Finland, from where he caught the last boat out to the free part of Europe.
Once in New York, however, Borge was handicapped by not knowing a word of English. He studied it in cinemas on 42nd Street, watching the same films round and round until he made some sort of sense of what the characters were saying. Being asked to read lines for the warm-up of a radio show led to him being invited to do the same sort of job on air for the Bing Crosby Kraft Music Hall. He understood hardly anything of what he was reading, but his ruptured English made him a success with listeners. He liked to recall that he was nominated second-best radio comedian of the year.
Out of this grew his mature act, in which language and logic tortured one another to breaking point. On the west coast, he made music and comedy records for the US war effort, and afterwards developed a repertoire of 15,000 jokes or routines, from which he could make a selection to suit any audience.
He devised variations on an early performance, when he had been trying to play seriously. Not trusting his memory, he stuck sheet music inside the piano lid, only to find that in performance it was peeling off around him like leaves in a storm. The counterpoint between his lugubrious dignity and the bizarre things that befell him - like being blasted off his piano stool by a soprano's top note, then producing a safety belt from the stool - could be hilarious.
Borge made a unique and highly lucrative niche for himself. He hired his own orchestra for his tours of the US and Canada, and had a 22-acre ranch and pool in the San Fernando Valley, California. His first marriage ended in divorce, and his second marriage, in 1953, was to his manageress, Sanna (who died in September). But when his ex-wife was occupying the ranch, he had to become frugal, setting up a large poultry farm in Connecticut so that he could have a stately home that made a profit.
In the 1970s, when more boisterous sorts of comedy became fashionable, he seemed to falter, complaining that the tabloids called him a has-been. During a London visit, he was touchingly grateful that broadsheet critics praised the show. He invigorated his act by introducing as partners a succession of attractive young women.
By the 1980s, Borge had got his second wind and looked like going on for ever as an international touring artist. By the 1990s, his initial suspicion of television - he thought his material too narrowly-based for constant TV exposure - had disappeared entirely. He continued touring, with a sell-out audience at the Barbican for his 1992 tour of the US, Australia and Britain.
His work for good causes, including Thanks To Scandinavia, a scholarship fund to commemorate Scandinavian efforts to help victims of Nazi persecution, earned him honours in several countries. But bringing laughter pleased him even more than honours. "The shortest distance between two people is a smile," was one of his favorite sayings, and there was always something life-affirming about his studied, quiet, intellectually devious humor.
Find A Local Organization
View the Full Calendar
Make a Donation
Visit Our Facebook Page