A Tribute to Victor Borge

Victor Borge was born as Børge Rosenbaum in Copenhagen, Denmark into an Ashkenazi Jewish family in 1909. His parents, Bernhard and Frederikke Rosenbaum, were both musicians. His father was a violist in the Royal Danish Orchestra for 35 years, and his mother was an accomplished pianist. Borge began piano lessons with his mother at the age of 2! It was soon apparent that he was a prodigy, giving his first piano recital when he was only eight. When he was 9 he was awarded a full scholarship to the Royal Danish Academy of Music and later, studied in Vienna and Berlin. Among his teachers were Frederic Lamond, a pupil of Franz Liszt, and Egon Petri, a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni. Borge made his debut as soloist with the Copenhagen Philharmonic when he was 10.

When his parents entertained with dinner parties and asked him to play for their guests, Borge would announce that he would play a work of Beethoven or Bach, but would actually play one of his own compositions in the style of Beethoven or Bach. Then he would secretly delight when a guest would exclaim “That’s my favorite Beethoven piece! I’ve never heard that piece played so well!”

Although Borge’s piano playing was critically praised, he suffered from debilitating attacks of stage fright. To counteract this problem, Borge started engaging the audience in banter between pieces and presenting comedy routines. And this aspect of his performances came to overshadow his playing.In public recitals, he was a serious musician, but at school, in clubs, and at family gatherings he included humor in his entertainment. After years of study to become a classical concert pianist Borge discovered his flair for comedy and his ability to respect the music while skewering the pomposity that often characterizes the presentation of classical music. After a few years as a classical concert pianist, he started his stand-up comedy act, with a blend of piano music and jokes. Borge became one of the most successful nightclub acts in Denmark, as well as appearing in six films, commanding the highest salary of any Danish entertainer. Word spread, and by the time he was in his early 20s, Borge’s incredible sense of humor combined with his musical ability had established him as one of the leading film and stage personalities in Scandinavia.

He married an American, Elsie Chilton. Borge started touring extensively in Europe, where he began telling anti-Nazi jokes. Borge, who was Jewish, often satirized Hitler. Borge was blacklisted because of his satirizing of Hitler and the Nazi party. Germany invaded Denmark in 1940. Fortunately, Borge was playing a concert in Sweden at the time, and he escaped with his wife and Scottish Terrier to Finland where they boarded the USS American Legion, which had been sent to evacuate Crown Princess Martha of Norway. The American Legion was the last neutral ship to leave Northern Europe. Disguised as a sailor, Borge managed to return to Denmark once during the Nazi occupation to visit his dying mother.

Borge arrived in the U.S. with only $20. He learned English by going to the movies. For 15 cents he could watch a film three times and, by the third showing, would try to repeat every word. Translated into English, he quickly managed to adapt his jokes to the American audience.Borge transformed his struggle with the English language into one of the most endearing parts of his act. In 1941, after failing to get a job pumping gas because his English wasn’t good enough, he changed his name to Victor Borge and began earning money playing piano at swanky parties in Hollywood. Rudy Vallee met him at one of these parties and invited him to be a warm-up performer for his radio show. Borge was soon hired by Bing Crosby for his radio program for a year-long run performing to 30 million Americans every week. Appearances in nightclubs, on concert stages, and on television followed. Borge won the title of “Best New Radio Performer” in 1942. Soon after he appeared in movies with stars such as Frank Sinatra. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1945. Beginning in 1946 he hosted the Victor Borge Show on NBC radio and appeared on television, especially with his own TV show, and in movies while performing his music comedy act around the world. He also appeared several times on Toast of the Town hosted by Ed Sullivan. Throughout his long career, Borge performed with many legendary performers including Dean Martin, Don Rickles, Mary Martin, Salvador Dali, Lucille Ball, and even Kermit the Frog.

He became a United States citizen in 1948 and in 1953 starred on stage in the show Comedy and Music in New York which became the longest-running one-man show in history with 849 performances, a record which made the Guinness Book of World Records. For the next four decades there was never a theater season when the name Victor Borge didn’t light up a Broadway marquee.

In 1960 he was the highest paid entertainer in the world. His musical sidekick in the 1960s was the pianist, Leonid Hambro. In 1968 the pianist Sahan Arzuni joined him as his straight man. He performed his famous Phonetic Punctuation routine for 60 years, but ‘Phonetic Punctuation’ wasn’t his. The original idea was penned by a Norwegian scriptwriter who eventually took Borge to court over its copyright and won. 

Starting in the 1950s, Borge owned a poultry business in Connecticut raising and popularizing Rock Cornish game hens. An expert skipper, Borge said, “With me, the three B’s are Bach, Beethoven, and Boats.” After he and his first wife divorced, he married Sarabel Sanna Scraper in 1953, and they remained married until her death, just 3 months before his own death in 2000.

He appeared in the movies, Higher and Higher with Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme, a cameo in The King of Comedy directed by Martin Scorsese with Robert DeNiro, Jerry Lewis, and Sandra Bernhard, The Story of Dr. Wassell directed by Cecil B. DeMille with Gary Cooper, and is the voice of Zenith in the animated film The Day Dreamer with Tallulah Bankhead and Patty Duke. Borge appeared often on television. He made several guest appearances on What’s My Line hosted by Groucho Marx. He appeared on The Electric Company, many times on Sesame Street and was a star guest on The Muppet Show. Borge was also in great demand as a guest on Fibber McGee and MollyJubileeMail Call and Command Performance.

He has conducted the National Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Royal Copenhagen Orchestra, and those of London, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Detroit. Some orchestras actually had their seasons rescued by a Victor Borge appearance and by his special benefit performances.

He is the author of three books: My Favorite Intermissions, My Favorite Comedies in Music, and his autobiography, The Smile is the Shortest Distance, which was only published in Danish.

Borge helped start several charity funds. In 1963 he initiated the Thanks to Scandinavia scholarship fund for Scandinavian students in gratitude for the heroic deeds of the Scandinavians, who risked their lives to save thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. The multi-million dollar fund has already brought thousands of students and scientists to the United States and Israel from Scandinavian countries and Bulgaria for study and research. Borge served as its longtime National Chairman.

In 1979 Borge founded the American Pianists Association, then called the Beethoven Foundation, to help young Americans enter international competitions and to provide a bridge from the academic to the international concert stage. It produces two major piano competitions.

In memory of his parents, he established a special music scholarship, one of the highest study grants in Denmark. It is awarded each summer at a gala ceremony in the Concert Hall of the famous Tivoli Gardens. He also established scholarship grants at the annual Rebild July Fourth Festival in Denmark — a Danish celebration of U.S. independence — and he has given innumerable benefits to help worthy causes.

In 1964 he donated his 310-acre farm and 13-room farmhouse to the Univ. of Connecticut. During a career that spanned more than 70 years, Borge received numerous awards. Victor Borge Hall was opened in 2000 as part of the Scandinavia House, New York City’s center for Nordic culture. Victor Borge Square in Copenhagen was created in 2002. A statue was erected there in 2009, and Asteroid 5634 Victorborge is named in his honor.

His life was celebrated by the American Scandinavian Foundation in 2009, and a TV special entitled 100 Years of Music and Laughter was broadcast on PBS.  He has been knighted by Iceland, Norway Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, and was honored by both the U.S. Congress and the United Nations. He received an honorary membership from the Royal Danish Orchestra, and honorary degrees from Trinity College in Hartford, CT, Butler University, Dana College, the Univ. of Connecticut, and Luther College. He received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, the Order of the Dannebrog from Denmark, the Order of Vasa from Sweden, the Knight First Class of the Order of St. Olav from Norway, the Order of the White Rose from Finland, and the Order of the Falcon from Iceland, and the Kennedy Center Honors. Affectionately known as “The Great Dane,” Mr. Borge was an ambassador of goodwill for both his native Denmark and his adopted America.

Victor Borge continued to tour until his last days, performing up to 60 times per year at age 90. He died peacefully in his sleep in 2000, in Greenwich, Connecticut, at the age of 91 after more than 75 years of entertaining. In accordance with his wishes, Borge’s ashes are divided between the Putnam Cemetery in Greenwich, Connecticut, and the Western Jewish Cemetery in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Borge fathered five children, 2 with his first wife: Ronald Borge and Janet Crowle, and with his second wife: Sanna Feirstein, Victor Bernhard Jr., and Frederikke  Borge. His son, Ronald, occasionally performed with him onstage. At the time of his death in 2000, Borge left behind nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Borge always said that a smile is the shortest distance between people.