Today is the birthday (1909) of Børge Rosenbaum, known professionally as Victor Borge, a Danish and U.S. comedian, conductor, and pianist who achieved great popularity in radio and television in both the United States and Europe. When I was a teenager in the 1960s Borge was one of my absolute favorites. Sadly – for me – he did not vary his act much over his very long career, so I rather lost interest by the time I reached my 20s. But I can still look at his act on video nowadays and smile.
Borge was born in Copenhagen to Bernhard and Frederikke (Lichtinger) Rosenbaum who were both musicians. His father was a violist in the Royal Danish Orchestra, and his mother a pianist. Borge began piano lessons at the age of two, and it was soon apparent that he was gifted. He gave his first piano recital when he was 8 years old, and in 1918 (age 9) he was awarded a full scholarship to the Royal Danish Academy of Music, studying under Olivo Krause. Later on, he was taught by Victor Schiøler, Liszt’s student Frederic Lamond, and Busoni’s pupil Egon Petri.
Borge played his first major concert in 1926 at the Danish concert-hall Odd Fellow Palæet (The Odd Fellow’s Lodge building). After a few years as a serious classical concert pianist he shifted into his now famous comedy act, with the signature blend of piano music and jokes. I can’t find any absolutely reliable information on how exactly the transformation occurred, but Borge himself reported that he once saw a pianist slide right off his bench in the middle of a concerto, and clearly this hit a (funny) nerve for Borge. His sense of humor must have always been latent, and when he experimented with it on stage it was immediately successful. Despite his comedy act overtaking his concert playing he maintained a small serious concert schedule as performer and conductor all his life.
Borge married US citizen Elsie Chilton in 1933, and in the same year he debuted his revue acts which were immediately successful. He began touring extensively in Europe, where he began telling anti-Nazi jokes as one of his primary comedic vehicles. When the Nazis occupied Denmark during World War II, Borge was playing a concert in Sweden and managed to escape to Finland. He traveled to the US on the United States Army transport American Legion, the last neutral ship to make it out of Petsamo in Finland, and arrived 28 August 1940, with only $20. Disguised as a sailor, Borge returned to Denmark once during the occupation to visit his dying mother. This was an exceptionally courageous act because he was certainly on Nazi watch lists, as well as being Jewish.
Sometimes it is claimed that Borge did not speak a word of English upon arrival in the US, but I find that hard to believe given that he had been married to a US citizen for 7 years. However, his claim that he learned English by watching English language movies regularly seems perfectly plausible. Very soon after arrival he managed to adapt his jokes to US audiences, and was a hit. He took the name of Victor Borge in the US, and in 1941, he started on Rudy Vallee’s radio show. He was hired soon after by Bing Crosby for his Kraft Music Hall program.
Borge rose quickly to fame, winning Best New Radio Performer of the Year in 1942. Soon after the award, he was offered film roles with stars such as Frank Sinatra (in Higher and Higher). While hosting The Victor Borge Show on NBC beginning in 1946, he developed many of his trademarks, including repeatedly announcing his intent to play a piece but getting “distracted” by something or other, making comments about the audience, or discussing the usefulness of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” as an egg timer. He would also start out with some well-known classical piece like Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and suddenly move into a harmonically similar pop or jazz tune, such as Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” or “Happy Birthday to You.”
One of Borge’s other famous routines is “Phonetic Punctuation,” in which he read a passage from a book and added exaggerated sound effects to stand for all of the punctuation marks, such as periods, commas, and exclamation marks. I used to howl with laughter at this 40 years ago. I am a little surprised to note that he delivered the routine without substantial change for decades. In fact just about all of his material remained the same, yet he continued to make audiences laugh.
In his stage shows in later years, he would include a segment with opera singer Marylyn Mulvey. She would try to sing an aria, and he would react and interrupt, with such antics as falling off the bench in “surprise” when she hit a high note. He would also remind her repeatedly not to rest her hand on the piano. After the routine, the spotlight would fall upon Mulvey and she would sing a serious number with Borge accompanying in the background.
Borge played with and conducted orchestras including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and London Philharmonic, and was invited to conduct the Royal Danish Orchestra at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1992.
Borge continued to tour until his last days, performing up to 60 times per year when he was 90 years old. Borge made several appearances on the long-running TV show What’s My Line?, both as a celebrity panelist, and as a contestant with the occupation “poultry farmer” (the latter was not a comedy routine; as a business venture, Borge raised and popularized Rock Cornish game hens starting in the 1950s).
Borge died in Greenwich, Connecticut, at the age of 91, after more than 75 years of entertaining. He died peacefully in his sleep a day after returning from a concert in Denmark. “It was just his time to go,” his son, Frederikke Borge, said. “He’s been missing my mother terribly.” (His wife had died only three months earlier.) According to his wishes, his connection to both the United States and Denmark was marked by having part of his ashes interred at Putnam Cemetery in Greenwich, with a replica of Danish icon The Little Mermaid sitting on a large rock at the grave site, and the other part in Western Jewish Cemetery (Mosaisk Vestre Begravelsesplads) in Copenhagen.
I’ve chosen cherry cheese Danish as my recipe for Borge because it’s a U.S./Danish hybrid and because I used to make it around this time of year. It calls for rising overnight, so I would start it on Christmas Eve and bake it on Christmas morning to go with coffee whilst unwrapping the presents. Actually Danish pastry is really a Viennese tradition that was imported from Austria by the Danish, and from there to the U.S. But this kind of pastry is very common with coffee in Denmark, and has definitely made a home there and in the U.S. I make my own cherry filling using pitted bitter cherries simmered in a simple syrup which I reduce. You can use any canned filling you want. The thing about classic Danish pastry, quite different from commercial U.S. varieties, is that it is made with a layered style of puff pastry that is leavened with yeast. Usually in the U.S. you need to go to a local bakery to get the original. It’s worth it.
Cherry Cheese Danish
2 packages (¼ oz each) active dry yeast
½ cup warmed milk (approx 110°F)
6 cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup sugar
2 tsp salt
1 cup cold butter, cubed
1½ cups half-and-half, warmed (approx 75°F)
6 egg yolks
10 oz cherry pie filling
10 oz cream cheese
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons butter, softened
¼ tsp vanilla extract
4 tbsp half-and-half
Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk and set aside.
In a large bowl or food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles wet sand. I usually pulse 8 or 9 times with the food processor. Add the yeast mixture, cream and egg yolks and stir gently, but thoroughly to form a soft dough. The dough will be sticky. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.
In the morning, punch down the dough. Divide the dough into four. Place each piece in turn on a lightly floured surface, and roll it into an 18”x 4” rectangle, and cut this into 4”x 1”strips.
Place two strips side by side and twist them together. Shape the twist into a ring and pinch the ends together. Place the rings 2” apart on greased baking sheets. Cover with kitchen towels and let rise in a warm place until doubled (about 45 minutes).
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Make a ½”-deep indentation in the center of each ring with the back of a spoon. Spread a little cream cheese in the base of the indentation and top with cherry filling.
Bake the pastries for 14-16 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from the pans and cool on wire racks.
While the pastries are baking make the icing. In a standard mixer beat together the confectioners’ sugar, butter, vanilla, salt and half and half until it is thick but pourable. Drizzle over the cooled pastries.