Interview by James Day (OBM)
Victor Borge (OBM) used to bill himself as an “unmelancholy Dane,” a description that modestly understates the laughter and joy this pianist – turned comedian has brought to millions around the world. If his father who played violin in the Royal Danish Symphony, hoped for a son to follow in his musical footsteps, this son was not one to follow the footsteps of anyone’s footsteps. Long before he fled the Nazi occupation of his homeland, Victor Borge found the magic and the fortune to be made from combining the talent for music with a facile wit and the sense of the absurd. And as if to prove that every Dane has at least two sides to his character, he found time between world tours, one man shows, command performances and television specials, to start, of all things, a highly successful business, marketing frozen cornish hens.
James Day (JD): Mr. Borge, I would like to ask you about your one-man show, which you performed before all kinds of audiences, all over the world. You performed before royalty, before heads of state. I want to ask you to imagine what you think it might be like if you performed your one-man show for a very select audience made up of Bach (OBM), Beethoven (OBM), Tchaikovsky (OBM), Brahms(OBM), Mozart (OBM), even throw Debussy (OBM) in there. How do you think they’d receive your show?
Victor Borge (VB): Sitting down, I guess, first (laughing). And I think I could compare it with an audience or some people that have had an audience. For instance, when I had a luncheon performance for the New York Philharmonics some years ago when Bruno Walter (OBM) and Metropolis and all the leading musicians in the world, you name them – they were there – and sat with napkins in front of their faces, not because they wanted to hide themselves, but I think it was from laughter. I think the composers would have done the same, because when I perform, for instance, with symphony orchestras, which I do very often, I conduct the evening, and then in-between I would do some of my piano things. And of, course, they are the first to grasp the humor, the depth of humor in it, and there are often times when they’d break the instruments.
JD: They do?
VB: Yes. Not deliberately, I guess. This is my best audience.
JD: Well, they were clever men of humor, were they not?
VB: Of course. Some of them.
JD: Which one would you chose to perform before if you had that selection to make? Which one do you think would be the most appreciative?
VB: That I don’t know. Because what I would do, I would, of course, not ridicule a particular person. And I don’t ridicule, I just have fun with. For instance, when I play with a symphony orchestra, I never use the orchestra as a scapegoat or as a gimmick. I do it with them and for them. And the same with the composer.
I have a young singer who has been now with me for a couple of years. And we do some travesty, you know, on opera singing and accompanying. And I do things that are normally being done, but I may underline then a little more.
The same when you do an opera parody. What do you do if it’s not funny to see a 250 lb primadonna who is supposed to be 17 or 18 years old?
If people knew what takes place in the minds of the musicians when they perform, I think it would enlighten them quite a lot, and I think it would justify many of the things I do.
JD: It’s almost the way of looking at it. Something that we all see, but we blind ourselves to the humor sometimes, because we are expected to take it quite seriously.
VB: Of course. If people only knew what’s been said by, for instance, singers during an opera, during the most dramatic scene, what they whisper to each. If people knew what takes place in the minds of the musicians when they perform, I think it would enlighten them quite a lot, and I think it would justify many of the things I do.
JD: I talked with one distinguished musician, and I asked him what was on his mind when he played. He told me it was sheer concentration upon the music, which it required. There are some musicians, where, apparently, this is not always the case.
VB: Well, there are certainly musicians who concentrate on it get frightened…
One of the things that ruined my career as a concert pianist, so to speak, was fright.
VB: Yes, they get frightened. One of the things that ruined my career as a concert pianist, so to speak, was fright. Because if I would concentrate on what comes next or does that cadenza begin with the C# or with something else, it would drive me out of my mind. And I couldn’t go through with these things. I did it for a while, but I thought, “If this is going to be in my future…” And I know, you know very well also, that some of the great pianists of our time like Horowitz have gone through hell sometimes before a concert. And they don’t want to perform. And I think that it’s terrible that people have to perform, and nervousness or circumstances takes away maybe 30 or 40 percent of their ability. I think it doesn’t make much sense.
JD: What do you do about nervousness or are you without nervousness?
VB: No, I am terribly nervous, of course.
JD: Before you go on to one of your own performances?
VB: Depending, of course, on what kind of performance I do. If I play, for instance, when I play with an orchestra, which I often do when I conduct it from the piano, when we do Gershwin, maybe, the concerto in F or when we do some special arrangement, I am terribly nervous.
JD: … and nothing I can do about it.
VB: …and there is nothing you can do about it. Well, there is nothing I can do about it. May there there is something you can do about it (laughing)?
JD: You began to play piano at the age of 4 or 5 in Copenhagen.
VB: Yes, whenever I could reach the keyboard (smiling).
JD: Were you ever encouraged or forced to play the piano? You father was a musician.
VB: No, I was forced not to. By the neighbors.
JD: Your father was in the Royal Symphony, was he not?
VB: Yes, he was there for 33 years.
JD: As a violinist…
VB: Yes. I think he played viola.
JD: Oh, did he?
JD: Why did you take up the piano?
VB: Because my father used the violin all the time (laughing).
JD: I guess it’s a good enough reason.
VB: I told you, he was there for 33 years. As the matter of fact, we never recognized him when he came home.
JD: You did become a concert pianist, as you’ve said. And played for how many years?
VB: Until now (laughing)… Oh, concert? Oh, I don’t know.
JD: You were a child prodigy…
VB: I was a child prodigy. Yes. I am not that any longer.
JD: I see. It must be something of a handicap to be a child prodigy.
VB: Yes, particularly when you aren’t any more. It has its advantages, of course. But it also has its disadvantages. The advantages are that you are featured, but you do not accept it while that happens, because you don’t know the difference. It’s only afterwards, when you are not featured any more, it becomes more difficult. But I changed from… in other words, when I was going to make my own life and support myself, I had pupils, I was supposed to be a very good teacher.
If somebody does something terribly serious, then it is hilariously funny.
JD: Absolutely straight, too (smiling).
VB: Oh, yes. You see, the funny thing about humor is that it is very serious. The only thing that is funny is when it’s not humorous, because then it becomes funny, you see. Humor itself is not funny. It is the seriousness that makes humor. I mean, a very serious situation: one of the standard things – a person falls on the banana peel, for instance. That is darn serious, isn’t it? But you can’t help laughing if you see it on the stage if somebody does it. If somebody does something terribly serious, then it is hilariously funny. In order words, if I come in on the stage, and I am going to play the beginning of Tchaikovsky piano concerto, and I am sitting on a bench – a piano bench. Normally a pianist sits on a porcelain bench or a stool that can elevate him. Now, I ‘ve seen this happen, and I am doing it myself. I don’t do it any more, because I hurt my arm doing it, but I used to do it. Now, this pianist came in and sat on a polished wooden bench. He was used to the leather bench that would not make him scoot. And he did the first chords of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto – boom, boom, boom – and he slid right off the bench. Now, this is serious! But when I do it – ha, ha, ha – it’s hilariously funny. But it was done, actually.
JD: Well, I doubt the people laughed when he did it.
VB: Oh, no, they were shocked, of course. But when I do it, I don’t think they are shocked.
… there is not situation that can be serious enough not to have a glimpse of humor in it.
JD: It’s partly what you expect, isn’t it?
VB: … But you see, you have to do it …. Don’t we have a lot of things with people with silk hats and funerals and in vaudeville… the funeral attendance, you know? The sketches… The more serious it is, the more humor there is to be found in it. Death in itself is, of course, not particularly funny, but there is not situation that can be serious enough not to have a glimpse of humor in it. Because I consider humor to be between the… I am not prepared to say these things, so I am stuttering a little bit, but it’s quite an interesting subject – a man’s inefficiency. No man is perfect. Can we agree with that?
VB: The difference between where we stop imperfection is where humor sets in. In other words, if some man, some person is 70% perfect, 90-92% perfect, the gap in-between is where hilarity begins.
JD: I wanted to take you back to Copenhagen. I wonder when the hilarity set with you.
VB: When I was born.
JD: Of course, but there was some point in your career, and different stories are written. You winked at some ladies in the front row at the audience doing a serious concert or something. Now, I suspect these stories were apocryphal, but there was a point when you switched from serious music to serious music with humor, there wasn’t? What was the gap?
VB: No, I didn’t switch. It happened very slowly. You know just like you build a road or you build a highway. Anything we do, nothing is suddenly.
JD: It didn’t happen in one day.
VB: It couldn’t. Of course, it couldn’t. But I think it is a matter of chemistry. I think I was created like anybody else but with a musical ability and a sense of humor, which is a chemistry of which I consist, partly.
JD: That came with the equipment.
VB: That came with the equipment, yes. (smiling). That’s what happened. And these two things are finally got together you know and become…
JD: … and you became the leading comedian in Denmark.
VB: Well, when you ask me “Who is your favorite composer?” I will not do that. Or if you ask me “Who is your favorite actor?” I will never tell you that. Because I might hurt somebody who is just as favorite, therefore, I cannot answer that question.
JD: I am sorry, I didn’t put it as a question.
VB: I know. But I could give you an answer to it even if it wasn’t a question.
JD: I see. But in your comedy in Denmark, I am told, I read that you did make fun of the Nazis, which were a threat at that point to Denmark, to all of Europe.
VB: What may I refer to what I have said before – the more serious the situation, the more it calls for humor and the more it hits. The more there is to it. Humor is a medium. You cannot create humor. Humor is a medium, with which you can create situations. Humor is to the humorist what a brush is to the painter, and what a pen is to the poet or the composer. You create with humor. Now, depending, of course, upon the degree of artistry there is in the humor as it depends upon the degree of artistry there is in a composer or in a painter, they can be better or they can be less good… but humor can devastate. I think it’s been used many times in politics – Winston Churchill (OBM), Roosevelt (OBM). You can avoid wars, you can create wars, all depending how it’s being used and with what strength and with what intention, you see…
I remember, for instance, my father was being buried. My father was 62 when I was born. He actually jumped a generation. He should have waited, but I guess he couldn’t (smiling). He lived to be 85, and my mother was very much in love with him. And at the funeral I stood and held my mother’s arm. Some colleagues from the Royal Orchestra were carrying the casket. They had played some quartets of Tchaikovsky. And my mother was, of course, completely gone. Some of the colleagues of my father were standing next to the casket. And some of them looked terribly funny. There was a little fellow – an oboist – who had his silk hat on that was much too small – a little fat man. There was a terribly tall man who played the bassoon who had a hat that was much too big for him; and it went way down on his head. And that sight was so hilarious. And I said to my mother, “If father could open his eyes and see this, he would have died laughing anyway.” And my mother started laughing.
JD: Was your father a man who really enjoyed humor?
VB: Oh, yes. He was very witty. And you talked about the Nazis. You cannot fight a situation like that with words. You must have more than just words, because you can’t do it scientifically. You have to have something that goes deeper than words. And that is, I think, humor. Humor is one of the things that can create things in a man or in a woman, in a person, like nothing else. It’s like tickling somebody. I remember once in Denmark we had a problem – we had a tax issue… They wouldn’t accept a regular 10% tax for my performances when I finally went to the stage and did theatrical performances, because they said it was variety or something like that. Concerts were 10%. If I played concerts, they were 10%, but if it were theatrical things like I do now, it would be 20%. And I went to court with it, and I insisted that all I did was exactly the same thing: when I played piano, I would touch some muscles in you or some feelings in you that would make you either cry or feel good or feel bad or resent it. And when I talked, I would do the same thing, but probably activate other muscles or other things in your body. And why should one be 20% and the other should be only 10%, which I thought was unfair? And I won the case. I had to pay 20% for both (laughing). No, I won the case, of course.
JD: The Nazi invasion of Denmark was what brought you to America, drove you to America, I suppose. But you did make your choice to come to New York. You’ve referred to it as the day you were born.
VB: The day I was re-born. Yes.
JD: Why did you choose America?
VB: I didn’t, but the ship went here, and I didn’t have influence (laughing). As a matter of fact, if I did have influence, I would still come to America for two reasons. Where else could you go at that time? And that was the country, to which I had my tickets. And I was fortunate, of course.
JD: I see. But earning a living here was a bit difficult at the beginning, wasn’t it?
VB: It is always a difficult thing. It was impossible because I couldn’t speak the language, and nobody knew me.
And he said, “What do you do?” I said, as well as I could say, “Well, I play the piano.”
JD: As a performer this would be difficult unless you would play the piano, of course.
VB: Yes, but where? You don’t go around just playing the piano. You have to know somebody. I remember somebody told me to go down to Florida to Palm Beach maybe to get involved with some of the big balls and parties there, you know, I could entertain and play, but, of course, I wouldn’t talk – I couldn’t say a word. And they sent me to a local agent. And he said, “What do you do?” I said, as well as I could say, “Well, I play the piano.” And he was going to get me a job at one of the big festivals. He said, “What do you play? I said, “I play the piano.” He said, “If somebody said, for instance, “Play the Blue Danube, what would you do?” I said, “I would play the Blue Danube, of course.” And he said, “Ok, let me hear it.” And I said, “Ok, do you have some music?” And he brought me some music, and I played it upside down. And then I turned the page around and I said, “I am sorry,” and I did it the regular way. He threw me out of the office.
JD: He did? Didn’t appreciate it.
VB: No. He said, “You can’t even read music.” (laughing)
JD: Your first break came at Bing Crosby, I gather.
JD: Did you really chauffer a family out West to get out West?
VB: Yes. It was some friends of mine who had a daughter who was going to get married in San Francisco and would like to have a car out there. And that was my chance to come to the West Coast, where Hollywood, of course, loomed. And having made movies, I thought, when I get out there… just wait till I get out there. I am still waiting.
JD: You only made one movie, as the matter of fact.
VB: Yes, that wasn’t a movie. That was a catastrophe.
JD: It was.
VB: That was called “Higher and Higher.” I played Sir Victor Fitzroy Victor, an English nobleman. I could hardly speak English.
JD: How did you learn to speak English?
VB: I didn’t (laughing).
JD: It’s been a real asset, hasn’t it?
VB: Yes. I am still trying.
JD: I asked that as I am sure you know because the research material on you indicates that when you went to movies when you first landed in New York. Is that so?
VB: Yes, I went to 42nd street where, I think, for 50 cents one could see three movies, and you could sit there for 24 hours if you wanted to. And I sat sometimes for almost 24 hours, because it repeated, and I could see the action with the words, and I would memorize the words and say them with the actors. And nobody would be disturbed, because there would be hardly anybody else in the theater. And that was… I don’t think I learned to actually speak English, but it helped a lot.
JD: You must have learned a lot of other things as well.
VB: I sure did.
JD: Were they useful?
VB: Well, I tried some. For instance, once I would pass a pretty girl on the street, and I said, “Hi, Babe!” She must have seen the same movie, because she said, “Scram bum!” or something like that.
It’s a great satisfaction to know that somebody wants more of whatever you have to offer.
JD: I’ve heard that you are a perfectionist. That you really only feel well when you know that you’ve done extremely well, and you get depressed when you don’t feel that you’ve done your best. Is that so?
VB: No, it is not exactly so. I don’t see it’s a matter of feeling that you have done your best because, once you do that then there is nothing left over. There should be something left over. That doesn’t mean that you would try to do what the situation calls for, but I think that if one has done one’s best, one has finished somehow, you know. It might be a little deep. I have never been completely satisfied with anything I have done, in spite of the fact that I have been encouraged. For instance, I have never improvised to the extent where I have said to myself, “This was marvelous.” But I have said, “This was nice, but had I only done such and such, it would have been…” You know, I always have that little thing left over. And I also have a feeling, for instance, a very gratifying feeling, when I finish the performance, and some of the people come afterwards or later they say, “I wish you had played some more…” or “I wish it had lasted longer.” It’s a great satisfaction to know that somebody wants more of whatever you have to offer. And granted that some people would probably say, “We didn’t want any of it,” but that’s their own fault – you shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
But it is like driving an automobile. I can drive 140 miles. Good to know, but you don’t drive 140 miles. You have that excess, you have a little extra. And it’s good to know that you could possibly do a little better next time. Or there is something that could always be improved. I am very sensitive with letters, for instance. I often take much too much time to write a good letter. I am very fond of good letters. Because I think that the way we express ourselves in a letter mirrors ourselves, many things that, otherwise, don’t come to the fore. But in a letter, many people contradict themselves, actually. You know what they mean. For instance, like the letter from a lady who said to me she had such a marvelous time at the show and that she hadn’t laughed so hard since her husband died. Now, of course, we know….
I am very critical, particularly with myself, but I forgive easily.
JD: But you know what she meant…
VB: Of course, I know what she meant. And that was very sweet…
JD: But saying precisely what you do means a great satisfaction.
VB: Exactly. And when I read the letter all over again, and I finally sign it, I say, “This I could have said a little better.” In other words, I am very critical, particularly with myself, but I forgive easily.
JD: Thank you very much, Mr. Borge.
Interview Transcribed and Adapted for Publication by Alex Davydovich (MGBH)