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Victor Borge

piano-playing comedian

Victor Borge

Life and Career

Børge Rosenbaum was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on January 3, 1909. His father Bernhard was a violinist in the Royal Danish Chapel and his mother Frederikke played the piano, so music was a part of his life from birth. He began learning the piano at the age of three, gave his first recital at eight, was awarded a full scholarship to the Royal Danish Academy of Music at nine, and made his orchestral debut as a soloist with the Copenhagen Philharmonic at the "ripe old age" of ten.

Although he initially made his mark as a serious concert pianist, Rosenbaum began adding jokes and other comedy bits to his music when performing before family and friends. His unique blend of music and humor proved so popular that he turned into a full-scale act, and by the early 1930's he was one of the most popular performers in Scandinavia.

Rosenbaum was performing in Sweden when Nazi Germany occupied Denmark in 1940. He was able to get to Finland, where he boarded the SS American Legion, the last American passenger ship to depart from northern Europe before World War II, and arrived in the United States that same year. It was at this time that he changed his name to Victor Borge.

Despite not speaking a word of English upon his arrival, Borge was able to adapt his jokes to an American audience, and he soon learned enough English to get a supporting role in Rudy Vallee's radio show. American fame came quickly, and by 1941 he was a regular on Bing Crosby's "Kraft Music Hall." Named "Best New Radio Performer" in 1942, he soon began appearing in movies, with his first major picture being Higher and Higher, with Frank Sinatra, in 1943. "The Victor Borge Show," featuring Pat Friday and the Billy Mills Orchestra, debuted on NBC Radio as a summer replacement for "Fibber McGee and Molly" on July 3, 1945, and ended its run on September 25. NBC teamed him with Benny Goodman for a prime time program the following year, and "The Victor Borge/Benny Goodman Show" ended up running from September 9, 1946 to June 30, 1947. It was while working on radio that Borge developed and refined many of his trademark routines, including repeatedly announcing his intent to play a serious piece but then appearing to become repeatedly distracted by one thing or another and making comments on and to the audience. When he finally "got around to" playing the full piece, he always did so flawlessly.

Taking his routine to television, Borge appeared on Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" several times in 1949, the same year he became a naturalized citizen. The half-hour-long "Victor Borge Show" aired on NBC from February 3 to June 30, 1951. The visual medium allowed him to introduce more physical comedy into his routines, including falling off the piano bench while playing a particularly lively number and then putting on a seatbelt "for safety." Another of his trademarks was to play a strange-sounding tune from sheet music while looking extremely confused and turning the sheet music upside down, sideways, etc. before finally figuring out the correct orientation and playing what proved to be the correct tune (which he had been literally playing upside down, sideways, backwards, etc.).

On October 2, 1953, Borge opened his one-man Comedy in Music show at the John Golden Theatre in New York City. It subsequently became the longest running one-man show on Broadway, with a total of 849 performances before closing on January 21, 1956.

In addition to his one-man comedy-piano shows, Borge also performed with some of the world's most renowned orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic, and even lent his comedic talents to the conducting of those same notable orchestras, as well as to operas. Barely slowing down as he got older, he was still performing at up to sixty engagements a year in his nineties. In fact he was scheduled to embark on a tour of Europe when he died in Greenwich, Connecticut, on December 23, 2000.

Other Work

Victor Borge was the author of two books -- My Favorite Intermissions (1971) and My Favorite Comedies in Music (with Robert Sherman, 1980). His autobiography, Smilet er den korteste afstand, written with Niels-Jørgen Kaiser, was published in 2001.

In addition to his prowess as a comedian and pianist, Borge was also a good businessman. One of his most successful businesses was a poultry farm that is considered the "birth place" of the Rock Cornish game hen, now the most common strain of commercially raised "meat" chickens.

Borge used some of the millions of dollars he earned to endow the Thanks to Scandinavia Foundation, a scholarship fund dedicated to recognizing the heroism of people in Scandinavia who risked their lives to save thousands of Jews and other persecuted people from the Nazis during World War II. Since its establishment, the fund has allowed more than a thousand Scandinavian health care students and scientists to study and do research in the United States. He also helped raise millions of dollars for the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and was a co-founder of the Beethoven Foundation (now the American Pianists Association), which currently produces two major piano competitions.


Recognized as a national treasure by much of Scandinavia, Borge was honored with the Orders of Knighthood and the Commander Cross of Dannerbrog, and also received honors from the United Nations. He was also the recipient of the 22nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime contribution to arts and culture, presented by President Bill Clinton on December 5, 1999.

Victor Borge Hall, located in Scandinavia House in New York City, was named in Borge's honor in 2000, as was Victor Borges Plads (“Victor Borge Square”) in Copenhagen in 2002.

Family Life

Victor Borge married Elsie Chilton on December 24, 1933. The couple had two children -- Ronald and Janet -- before divorcing in 1953. On March 17, 1953, he married Sarabel Sanna Scraper, with whom he had three children -- Sanna, Victor Jr., and Frederikke. Sarabel died on September 19, 2003.

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The Robinson Library >> Biography: Musicians

This page was last updated on 07/09/2018.