This Day in Jewish History

1909: Terrified Musical Prodigy Who Could Only Perform When Joking Is Born

Victor Borge had stage fright so bad he had to distract himself: the Nazis didn't find him funny, but America did.

Victor Borge performing before an audience in 1957.
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January 3, 1909, is the birthdate of Victor Borge, the Copenhagen-born comedian-pianist whose nicknames included the “Clown Prince of Denmark.”

Recognized as a musical prodigy at a very young age, Borge was destined for a career as a concert pianist but suffered from debilitating stage fright. He discovered that he could relieve his anxiety by cracking jokes with the audience before he began to play. He then turned this combination of melody and mirth into a lucrative career as an entertainer, which he successfully transplanted to the United States, after fleeing the Nazis in 1940.

Nazis and dogs

He was born Borge Rosenbaum. His father, the Russian-born Bernard Rosenbaum, played the viola with the Royal Danish Orchestra. His mother, the former Frederikke Lichtinger, was a pianist and music teacher.

Victor (he changed his name after moving to America) was the youngest of their five sons. He began playing the piano at age 2, and gave his first recital when he was 8. He studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, and also trained with teachers in Vienna and Berlin, before giving his first professional solo performance in 1926, in Copenhagen.

In addition to his stage fright, Borge attributed his shift away from being a concert pianist to his lack of “sitzfleish” – described by the New York Times’ Harold C. Schonberg, who interviewed him in 1989, as ''the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Instead, Borge developed an act that was punctuated with brilliant verbal and musical jokes, many of them improvised, which he began to present in nightclubs, instead of concert halls. This led to film, stage and radio work, and by the end of the 1930s, Borge was said to have been the highest-paid entertainer in Denmark.

But as a Jew, Borge began to attract abuse from local Nazi sympathizers. He responded by weaving anti-Nazi jokes into his routine. After Denmark and Germany signed a “non-aggression” pact, in May 1939, for example, Borge remarked, ''How nice. Now the Germans can sleep in peace, knowing that they will not be invaded by us.'' Another crack: ''What is the difference between a Nazi and a dog? A Nazi lifts his arm.''

One way to learn English

Fortunately for him, Borge was on a concert tour in Sweden when the Germans occupied Denmark, in April 1940. He made his way to Finland, and from there he and his American wife were able to book passage on an U.S. Army transport vessel sailing to New York.

Knowing no English on arrival, Borge taught himself the language by sitting in movie theaters for hundreds of hours, and then translating his act. By 1941, he had appeared on Rudy Vallee’s radio show and soon after that he became a regular on the “Kraft Music Hall,” hosted by Bing Crosby.

Borge’s own radio show premiered in the summer of 1945, and it was here that he developed some of his trademark shticks, such as announcing his intention to perform a piece of music, but suffering one distraction after another, so that the piece never got played; changing melodies and genres – for example, switching from Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” into “Happy Birthday” – without warning; and engaging in “phonetic pronunciation,” in which in place of periods, question marks and the like, he would utter funny sounds

In his 1989 interview with The Times, Borge explained how his act was intended “for two audiences at the same time. One is sophisticated, the other not musically oriented. But my jokes must be understood by everybody. Nobody must be bored. It is a fine line that I walk.''

Victor Borge photographed in front of Hotel D'Angleterre in Copenhagen, Denmark, 1990.
WikiCommons

Perhaps the peak of Borge’s success came in the mid-1950s, with his one-man revue on Broadway. What was planned as a two-week engagement, opening in October 1953, ended up running for nearly three years, grossing some $2 million. Borge reprised the show both in 1964 and 1977.  

Borge would perform until shortly before his death, some of that time as a conductor with some of the world’s leading orchestras (and no jokes). Even at age 90, he was still appearing up to 60 times a year.

Victor Borge died in his sleep, at his home, in Greenwich, Connecticut, on December 23, 2000. He was 91.