Sunday, January 3, 2010
Borge Rosenbaum was born in Copenhagen, Denmark on January 3, 1909. His Jewish parents were musicians – his father (Bernhard) a violinist and his mother (Frederikke) a pianist. Borge began piano lessons at age two and it was quickly discovered that he was a prodigy. He gave his first recital at age eight and was awarded a full scholarship to the Royal Danish Academy of Music in 1918. His first major concert was in 1926 and he toured as a classical musician for a few years.
By the early 1930’s he had incorporated some humour into his act and even added anti-Nazi jokes. He was performing in Sweden when Denmark fell to the Nazi’s, but managed to escape to Finland with his wife Elsie Chilton. From there, they sailed to America on the last neutral ship to make it out. Borge made one trip back to Denmark during the occupation by disguising himself as a sailor, to visit his dying mother.
The pianist and comedian spoke no English but adapted his act for North American audiences by quickly learning the language while watching English movies. Borge Rosenbaum changed his name to Victor Borge and in 1941 he appeared on The Rudy Vallee Radio Show, but was soon hired by Bing Crosby for the Kraft Music Hall.
Borge’s talent as a pianist and his comedic skills gave quick rise to his popularity. He appeared with numerous performers – including Frank Sinatra – and in 1946 he hosted his own show on NBC radio. Many of his trademark routines were developed during this time. Bits such as playing the Chopin’s Minute Waltz instead of using an egg timer or introducing a piece then being distracted became well known parts of the act.
One of his most famous routines was the “Phonetic Punctuation”. He would choose an excerpt from a book and read it to the audience using specific sound effects to represent each part of the punctuation.
Another famous piece that Borge invented and mastered was “Inflationary Language”. He explained it by saying that as the cost of living went up, why did words not change as well? He used examples such as: "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" becomes "I nined an elevenderloin with my five'k" and so on and so fifth.
His act also routinely included:
- involving the audience by asking about music likes. He would give an audience member a piece of sheet music then begin playing. Near the end he’d realize that he needed that piece of sheet music back to finish and had to retrieve it from the audience member.
- combining pieces of music or playing multiple interpretations of pieces such as “Happy Birthday”
- falling off his piano bench while playing a piece - he then pulled out a seatbelt from within the piano bench to strap himself in for safety.
- playing a piece and becoming confused by the sound. This was corrected when he turned the piece of music right side up and played correctly. He had literally been playing the music upside down.
- overreacting to a high note sung by an opera singer or asking a member of the orchestra (usually a violinist) to leave after playing a sour note. He then had the rest of the members move up one chair to cover for the missing performer.
Borge toured extensively throughout the world. He made regular appearances on Toast Of The Town and on Ed Sullivan. In 1953 he starred in his own one man show in New York City called “Comedy in Music”. It ran a record 849 shows. From the 1960’s on, he made many appearances on variety and television talk shows including: Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.
Borge made several appearances in movies and even authored/co-authored a few books. In the 1950’s he also raised and popularized “Rock Cornish Hens”. This accomplishment even led to an appearance on “What’s My Line” where he signed in with the profession of “Chicken Farmer”!
In later years, some of his children also toured with him as assistants in his on stage high jinks. Victor Borge had five children: two (Ronald and Janet) with his first wife Elsie Chilton and three (Sanna, Victor and Frederikke) with his second wife Sarabal Sanna Scraper whom he had married in 1953.
Victor Borge continued to perform right up to the end. He had just returned from performing in Denmark, when he died peacefully in his sleep in Greenwich, Connecticut at age 91 on December 23, 2000.
He has left us a lasting legacy of humour and music that continues to entertain audiences of all ages. A hall in the Scandinavia House in New York City is named in his honour, as is a square in Copenhagen. Borge had received Kennedy Centre honours in 1999 and a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame in 1993.
Borge was known by many nicknames including: The Clown Prince of Denmark, The Unmelancholy Dane, and The Great Dane. Some of his best one liners included:
- I love this piano... I get about 4 sonatas to a gallon of red wine on it...
- Very expensive these pianos... It's not mine! But they come in a six pack!
- I have been looking forward to this evening's performance ever since... 7:30... two weeks ago.
- I'd like to thank my parents for making this night possible. And my children for making it necessary.
- I normally don't do requests. Unless, of course, I have been asked to do so.
- I don't mind growing old. I'm just not used to it.
- Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.
- Occasionally, a finger comes up to wipe a tear [of laughter] from the eye... and that's my reward... the rest goes to the government.
- I only know two pieces, one is 'Clair de Lune', the other one isn't.
- When you go home, please drive home extremely carefully. Extremely carefully. Because I walk in my sleep!
- I'm going to play it with both hands so that way I will get through with it a little faster.
- There will be no dancing during this number... unless you absolutely have to!
- My grandfather gave me this watch...a few minutes before he died...for 20 bucks...plus tax...
- One afternoon, when I was four years old, my father came home, and he found me in the living room in front of a roaring fire, which made him very angry. Because we didn't have a fireplace.
- Before we start, the Baldwin Piano Company has asked me to say that this is a Steinway piano [or vice versa].
- (Inspecting the piano) Hmmm… Steinway & Sons. Didn't even know he was married.
- It is important to always, always fasten your seat belt wherever you play.
- (Responding to a sneeze from the audience) Who exploded?
- Pardon me for sitting down while I play.
I was lucky enough to see him perform here in Winnipeg in the early 1990’s. I had always loved his comedic wit and timing and was thrilled to get front row seats to see this musical genius in action at the Centennial Concert Hall. He did not disappoint! Even though I was very familiar with most of his routines it was a night I will never forget - I laughed so hard that tears ran down my cheeks!