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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 1953. For the four decades that followed there was never a theater season, when the name Victor Borge didn't light up a Broadway marquee.
"Victor Borge is world-famous as the funniest pianist on Earth," declared The Washington Post a few years ago. And he gets as many laughs at the keyboard as under it. Borge has made an art of finding excuses not to play the piano--falling off the bench, swatting imaginary flies, stopping to reprimand a late-arriving audience member, suddenly remembering a joke or anecdote. "But when Borge finally does perform," reports The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, " it's the real thing: music-making of surpassing warmth and charm."
Ninety years ago, he was born Borge Rosenbaum in Copenhagen, Denmark. He started playing the piano when he was only three years old. He was hailed as a prodigy and given a scholarship to the Royal Danish Music Conservatory, making his orchestral debut as a soloist with the Copenhagen Philharmonic when he was 10. In public recitals, he was a serious musician, but at school, in clubs, and at family gatherings he played more humor than humoresque. His incredible wit combined with his musical ability established him quickly as a one-of-a-kind artist. Word got out, and by his early twenties Borge was established as one of the leading film and stage personalities of Scandinavia.
With the rise of the Nazis to power, Borge was blacklisted because of his biting barbs about Hitler and the Nazi party. He escaped from Finland on the SS American Legion in 1940, the last American passenger ship to leave northern Europe before the start of World War II. When he arrived in the United States, Borge knew no English. Yet that same year he started a year-long run on the "Kraft Music Hall" radio hour with Bing Crosby. Borge discovered a gold mine of humor in his struggle with the English language, and the immigrant's nightmare was transformed into one of the most enduring and endearing parts of the act.
In 1963 he helped to establish the Thanks to Scandinavia scholarship fund in gratitude for the heroic deeds of the Scandinavians who, while risking their own lives, saved thousands during the Holocaust. The multimillion-dollar fund has already brought more than a thousand students and scientists to the United States from Scandinavian countries for study and research.
In recent years he has added opera and symphony conducting engagements to his heavy stage and television commitments. Among others, the National Symphony, New York Philharmonic, London, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Royal Copenhagen orchestras have taken a beating under his baton.
He has been knighted by the five Nordic countries and honored by both the U.S. Congress and the United Nations.
Reflecting on his success, Borge has said: "Basically there is no difference between Scandinavian humor and American humor because when you play a thing upside down you don't have to have a language to do that." His art, though, is a language all understand--the conservatory-trained and the first-time concertgoer, young people and grownups, in concert halls around the world.
"If I knew what the secret was, it wouldn't be a secret," mused Victor Borge.