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Victor Borge, Classical Music's Clown Prince

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Victor Borge, Classical Music's Clown Prince

Victor Borge (1909 - 2000) delighted audiences worldwide with his musical comedy routines. We look back at his life and long career.

He was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, as Borge Rosenbaum in 1909 to a family steeped in musical tradition (his father played violin with the Royal Danish Orchestra, while his mother was a pianist). He began taking piano lessons at the ripe old age of two, and his prodigious talents were in evidence by the time he gave his first recital at eight years of age. A year later, he was awarded a scholarship at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. While still a teenager, he also studied in Vienna and Berlin with some of the period's leading pianists.

Borge gave his first formal recital in 1926, but soon found he lacked the discipline to be a world-class concert pianist. And something he saw around the age of 12 changed the course of his life, when he witnessed a Russian pianist accidentally tumble from a piano bench to much ensuing laughter (it was a move he would deliberately ape in his act well into his 90s). When performing at age 14, he looked out over the audience and saw that, as he told the Saturday Evening Post, "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." Borge was drawn to comedy, and by the early 1930s had a regular slot in Copenhagen's Gypsy Hall as a parlour comedian. In 1933, he married his first wife, American Elsie Chilton – a move that would later help save his life.

By the mid-1930s, Borge had become an entertainment polymath, acting in movies (as well as writing and directing them), composing music, and directing stage and radio shows. But the specter of fascism was already casting its shadow over Europe, and though Borge tried to make light of the threat in his routines ("What's the difference between a dog and a Nazi? A Nazi raises his arm"), as a Jew he knew Europe was becoming a dangerous place for him.

Fortunately for Borge, when the Germans invaded Denmark, he was performing in Sweden. He escaped to Finland, and from there – thanks to his wife's American citizenship – was able to travel to the United States, arriving in 1940 with $20 in his pocket and little knowledge of English. He later claimed to have taught himself the language by spending much of his first two years in America going to the movies.

In 1942, after changing his name from Rosenbaum to Borge, he landed his first steady gig as an opener on Rudy Vallee's popular radio show. He then became a regular on Bing Crosby's Kraft Music Hall and, less than three years after arriving in America, had his own radio show on NBC.

He wasn't completely finished with serious works though, conducting a 45-piece orchestra at Carnegie Hall between bouts of musical comedy. An Ed Sullivan appearance further raised his profile. In 1953, his one-man Comedy in Music Broadway show opened and went on to play for three years and 849 performances before Borge took the show across the U.S. and Europe.

The appeal of his comedy ultimately lay in the conflict between the stuffy formalism of classical music and the whimsical wordplay and physical pratfalls he brought to his performances. One famous gag had the elegant, tuxedo-clad Borge approaching the piano and going about a number of self-serious adjustments – fiddling with the score, checking the height of the bench, minutely inspecting the keyboard – but never actually playing a piece of music before rising triumphantly and taking a bow.

"Look at a symphony concert on TV and turn off the sound," he once said. "If you have the slightest sense of humor, you will laugh yourself silly – the musicians look and act absolutely ridiculous."

He treated the great composers with an irreverence fans found refreshing, inserting a few bars of "Happy Birthday" into works by Mozart and Debussy, or playing William Tell's overture backwards. He told the New York Times, "I have always worked for two audiences at the same time. One is sophisticated, the other not musically oriented. I notice that the ones who laugh most are composed of professionals, as when I do my act with orchestras. But my jokes must be understood by everybody. Nobody must be bored."

Though Borge wrote most of his own material, he also hired scribes such as Mel Brooks and Neil Simon to contribute gags. He'd also occasionally enlist the help of serious musicians to play the straight man, such as in his 1968 duet with pianist Zhahan Azruni.

Borge was a frequent guest on late-night TV shows hosted by the likes of Dean Martin and Johnny Carson, and even made a few appearances on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street.

He conducted orchestras in London, Copenhagen, New York and Philadelphia, and continued performing upwards of 60 times a year right until the age of 90 ("I'd like to thank for my parents for making this show possible," he'd often begin his performances by saying, "and my children for making it necessary"). His 1990 video The Best of Victor Borge sold over three million copies, bringing him to an even wider audience. He was knighted throughout Scandinavia, and honored by the U.S. Congress and the United Nations.

Borge died Dec. 23, 2000, at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Ruminating on what he got out of performing he once said, "Occasionally, a finger comes up to wipe a tear [of laughter] from the eye, and that's my reward." He paused and then added with characteristic aplomb, "The rest goes to the government."