The early months of 1940 were a jittery time in Denmark. Germany had invaded Poland, Europe was officially at war, and the Danes waited to see if their country, which had clashed with Germany in the previous century, would be next.
"Winston Churchill and I were the only ones who said it could happen here," says Victor Borge, the 90-year-old pianist who received the Kennedy Center Honors yesterday and will be toasted at the Honors Gala tonight.
Back then, Borge was named Borge Rosenbaum, a Danish entertainer who was also Jewish. Borge and Churchill were right. It did happen in Denmark, in 1940, despite a 10-year nonaggression pact signed with Germany a year earlier.
"What's the difference between a Nazi and a dog? A Nazi lifts his arm." At home in his seaside mansion, Borge doesn't think it's a funny joke, at least not anymore. But he hated the Nazis, and they hated him, and well before they arrived he worked that kind of material into his shows. During his last year in Denmark, he says he barely left the house for fear of attacks by German sympathizers.
Borge fled to Sweden, arriving a day before the invasion to give a string of performances he had arranged in anticipation of the German takeover. His wife, who held both Danish and American citizenship and was ostensibly immune from Nazi harassment, stayed behind.
On the day of his first performance as an exile in Sweden, the entertainer learned his mother was near death from cancer. Despite the danger, Borge, a very well known figure in his homeland, returned to occupied Denmark.
"I came back on my first free night and I told her the biggest lie of my life," he says in a voice inflected briefly into a minor mode. "I told her, 'When you get over this, we'll all go to America. I have a tremendous contract.' "
"Don't let it go to your head," his mother responded.
Borge never saw her again. His lie, however, was unexpectedly close to the truth. Despite not speaking English, despite leaving the earnings from his Danish career behind, despite having to compete with a great influx of musicians and entertainers from Europe, he soon did have a tremendous contract in America--with Bing Crosby's radio show, on which he was heard by an audience of 30 million every week for more than a year. By 1941, the refugee, who was living in Los Angeles with his wife, was on his way to becoming the "Great Dane," whose piano-comedy act has entertained generations on both sides of the Atlantic for more than half a century.
Five years ago, if you flipped through the channels late at night, past C-SPAN and through the blocked-out porn and movie stations, there was Victor Borge. Still not playing the piano (at least not very much) and still delivering his same genteel, Old World slapstick routines with impeccable timing. Although he maintains an impressive concert schedule for a 90-year-old with a bad shoulder and bum knees, Borge's widest audience may come from his videotapes, for years sold over the airwaves and now marketed in stores and catalogues. He is, and always has been, a popular entertainer, so what does it matter if he's back to back with slicer-dicers and Popeil's Pocket Fisherman?
Those late-night spots, which featured short clips from his performances, were a rare moment of serenity in the insomniac's endless quest. So many modern comics nurse a few grudges into a rant that's funny only when it breaks the rules of propriety. Borge comes from an age when comics thought in terms of material and timing, and, as with most great comics, his humor suggests a hidden matrix of screwy but recognizable distortions of logic and grammar, a comedy of mirrors and prisms.
"I have been knighted in all the Scandinavian countries. That makes me a weekend, an extended weekend."
Never mind his slapstick, pulling on the page-turner's tie or playing the "Blue Danube" Waltz upside down--the real heart of Borge's humor lies in its misapplied precision. There's an algebraic rigor to his use of parenthetical phrases that negate what came just before.
"I was an only son. Later I had an older brother."
"My grandfather gave me this watch a few minutes before he died--for 20 bucks."
It could be Borscht Belt stuff, except that in Borge's hands it gives one the sense that he really does think this way, that his comic logic is like a musical phrase: What comes next can always alter or even subvert what came first.
Borge, in fact, learned to do English-language comedy rather like he learned how to play the piano--by carefully studying the phonetics and rhythms. His first appearances in this country were done by rote, memorized translations of his Danish material. His huge success on Crosby's "Kraft Music Hall" came without his knowing what the individual words he was speaking meant. Borge (who pronounces his name "BOR-ga") was understandable, but it wasn't the King's English. (Just before that breakthrough, Borge says, he applied for a job as a gas station attendant--but his English was so bad they wouldn't take him.)
"I didn't know what I was saying, I just did the phonetic punctuation, and people were taken to the hospital, they ran into trees and hit lampposts and died laughing. On radio and television, then, they always wanted me not to play, just jokes, jokes, jokes. It was an uphill battle to get to play more."
One of Borge's enduring routines, "Phonetic Punctuation," is a spoken aria of nonsense noises, amplified by the microphone. Borge's gag is to speak all the punctuation marks in a typical sentence: Periods go Phhhht!, commas come out Theeeewtk!, and exclamation points Szzzybkkkt! A whole sentence, so punctuated, sounds like a topsy-turvy percussion fantasy. Periods and commas, like musical expressive marks, are not meant to be heard literally yet are essential to meaning. By articulating them, Borge uses literal precision to make a kind of spoken music.
"It is not what you say," says Borge, "but how you say it. I once heard a lecture in Russian, but it was like a new form for music that I didn't understand. But it sounded good. And that is what music is supposed to be."
The one question you should never ask Victor Borge is whether he's really a pianist or a comedian. Borge's early career was a struggle to be both, and be accepted as a cross-media performer. At one of his first auditions in America, he performed his upside-down "Blue Danube," a skit in which he starts playing something that sounds like a waltz--it's probably Strauss--but it makes no sense. Then he stops, flips the sheet music around, and starts playing the waltz right side up.
"The head agent said, 'We can't use you, you don't even read music,' " says Jim Colias, Borge's personal assistant. "They had no idea what he was doing. This was supposed to be funny and they just didn't get it."
On radio and television they wanted Borge to talk more, to make him more accessible to a mainstream audience. In live performances, impresarios let him do more playing. His television spots in the late '50s and early '60s included skits and even some Lawrence Welk-style champagne music, complete with candelabra and shadow shots. Eventually he was able to define himself as indefinable, a very good pianist who was also very funny.
Part of this was good strategy. In the '40s and '50s, the United States enjoyed an unparalleled influx of superlative musicians, many of them Jews who had fled Europe during the war. The quality of American musicmaking surged--indeed, the Great Migration is the foundation upon which this country's musical excellence is built. But it also made competition fierce for performers.
"When I came to America, who needed a pianist?" he says. "I was not at that time in the league. I was a good pianist, but I wouldn't go to Carnegie Hall and try to fool anybody. But what did they want, a pianist who was not Horowitz when they already had Horowitz? So I used my ability to influence people to laugh and enjoy the way I combined music and words."
Borge has refined his act into a comic routine in which the piano functions mostly as a security blanket and only occasionally as an instrument. He still plays a few popular classics, but these are short interludes between monologues in which he pretends to be unable to get to the point.
Onstage, when he is talking, Borge occasionally walks over to the piano and places his hand on it. Sometimes his fingers trace a gentle circle on the black lacquer. It's a gesture reminiscent of something Horowitz did in 1986 when he returned to his native Russia to perform for the first time in 61 years. As he walked onstage, he lightly brushed a hand against his beloved instrument. When pianists do this, there's more going on than casual body language. It's about a love and reliance deeper than the music that we hear or--in Borge's case--don't hear.