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Charlie The Juggling Clown

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Victor Borge

by: Bruce Johnson

Victor Borge passed away December 23, 2000). If he was a clown or not depends upon whether you use an exclusive or inclusive style definition of clowning. It is a matter of personal opinion. I personally think he was a masterful clown who used a naturalistic appearance. In any case, clowns could learn a lot by studying his work, which fortunately is well documented by audio and video recordings. I had the pleasure of seeing two of his live performances. At the age of 91, he was still performing. The only adjustment he had to make for age was eliminating the fall off his piano bench. 

He was the subject of the cover story of The Clown In Times Volume Six Issue Three. Here is some information excerpted from that article. (The original article is much too long to reproduce here.)

Victor Borge (Jan. 3, 1909 - Dec. 23, 2000) Victor Borge said, "to people who take music seriously, I'm a musician. To people who don't take music seriously, I'm a comedian. To people who don't take anything seriously, I'm a clown."

Whether or not you consider Victor Borge a clown, clowns can learn from him and be inspired by him. (Clown Definitions) For example, one of his routines is to start playing a piece, which doesn't come out right. He takes a closer look at the sheet music, turns it over, resumes playing, and now it sounds right. Arthur Pedlar uses a similar bit in his routine.  One of Victor's sons tours with him playing an inept page-turner. Albert Alter plays a similar role in the BozoArts Duo. Victor combines physical comedy, verbal humor, and amazing musical ability.

In one of Victor's bits, he keeps sliding off the piano bench. Finally he opens the lid of the bench, pulls out a seat belt, and buckles himself down. After finishing the song, he stands to take a bow, but the bench is lifted up because he forgot to unbuckle the seat belt.

Another way he copes with sliding off the seat is to pull out his pocket-handkerchief and use it to carefully measure the distance between the piano and bench. When he is sure the bench is properly positioned, he puts the handkerchief away. Then as he sits down, he grabs the bench and pulls it forward. 

His two most famous verbal routines were Inflationary Language and Phonetic Punctuation. A military doctor following World War II used phonetic Punctuation as a diagnostic tool. Many soldiers experienced hearing loss, and doctors had trouble determining the cause. A doctor discovered that if they played a recording of Victor's routine, the patient would start smiling if the cause was psychosomatic, which could be cured. If the patient didn't smile, they knew the cause was physical, and the hearing loss was probably permanent. According to Victor, "he (the doctor) said many of the patients were helped that way. That made me very happy. I don't think anybody could remain stoical in the face of laughter."

A lot of his humor is based upon his amazing skill as a pianist. For example, he plays "Happy Birthday" in the style of famous composers like Bach and Brahms.

Each performance of his one-man show is a little different because he tailors it to the specific audience. Sometimes he changes the order of numbers or substitutes one for another to get the desired response from that particular group. He interacts with his audiences and plays off of them.

Victor Borge was born January 3, 1909, in Copenhagen. His real name is Borge Rosenbaum. His parents, Bernhard and Frederikke Rosenbaum, were musicians. His father played violin in the Royal Danish Philharmonic Orchestra for 35 years. His father was 61 when Victor was born. His mother started teaching Victor to play the piano when he was three.

He was trained as a classical pianist, but his talent for comedy soon became evident. When his parents asked him to play at their dinner parties, he would announce he was playing one of Beethoven's sonata's, and then play one of his own compositions in Beethoven's style. He thought it was funny when one of the guests would respond, "ah, yes, that has always been my favorite of Beethoven's works," or, "I've never heard it played so well."

During the 1930's, Victor became Denmark's most popular entertainer. He made his debut as a musical comedian in a revue in 1933, and appeared in four Danish films. He was known for his satirical comedy, especially his comments about the nazi's. One of his jokes from this period was "What is the difference between a dog and a nazi? A Nazi lifts its arm."

When Germany invaded Denmark in 1940, Victor topped the Nazi hit list because of his satirical jokes. He fled to America, sailing on the SS American Legion, the last ship to leave Northern Europe. (In 1963, Victor Borge and Richard Netter created the Thanks To Scandinavia Scholarship Fund in recognition of the work of the Scandinavian citizens risking their lives to save thousands of doomed people during the Nazi Holocaust. The multi-million dollar fund has brought over three thousand Scandinavian students and scientists to the United States to study and conduct research.  For more information go to www.ThanksToScandinavia.org)

In 1941, Victor became a cast member of Bing Crosby's radio program. He appeared on the show for fifty-six weeks. He made his TV debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1949. He hosted his own half-hour comedy-variety TV show from February 3, 1951 to June 30, 1951.

His one-man show, Comedy in Music, debuted in Seattle, WA in February of 1953. After touring all year, he opened at The Golden Theatre in New York for what was supposed to be a short stay on October 5, 1953. He was such a hit his performances were extended into 1956. The 849 performances of that show are still a record for the longest run of a solo Broadway show.

His Broadway show had a basic format. It always included variations on a theme, medley of favorite songs, the friendly finale, the Mozart Opera, and Phonetic Punctuation. But there was a great deal of spontaneity within that. The variations and medley songs might be different in each performance. Depending on the response he was getting, he might spend more time talking to the audience. The proportion of comedy and serious music also changed with each performance. This was reflected in the names of the nineteen numbers listed in the theater program. They were:

1. Frankly 2. We 3. Don't 4. Know 5. What 6. Mr. Borge 7. Will 8. Do 9. But 10. We're 11. Sure 12. He'll 13. Keep 14. Us 15. Posted 16. From 17. Time 18. To 19. Time.

His Broadway show was televised as an episode of Omnibus, a ninety-minute commercial free cultural program funded by the Ford Foundation. He has made many other television appearances since then.

Victor has given many benefits to help worthy causes, including orchestras. Many orchestras have had a profitable season only because of including a Victor Borge performance in their schedule. Victor Borge is a respected conductor. In 1998, he conducted the Royal Danish Philharmonic Orchestra in a Royal  Command Performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute. He has conducted The Magic Flute for many prestigious orchestras. He also conducts and narrates an acclaimed adaptation of Carmen by Bizet. Even when Victor is conducting, he includes comedy. In one bit, the concertmaster (a.k.a. first chair violinist) enters a passage one beat behind the rest of the musicians. Victor stops the music, and orders the musician to leave. When they get off stage, a shot is heard. Then Victor commands the nervous violinists to all move up one chair.

Victor Borge is also an author. With Richard Sherman he wrote My Favorite Intermissions (1971) and My Favorite Comedies In Music (1981). These books preserve much of Victor's verbal comedy from his performances, and they introduce readers to music history in a fun way. In 1982, I attended a Victor Borge performance. He plugged his newest book, and announced that he had autographed each of the copies for sale in the lobby. The audience laughed because it sounded like a joke. There were cases of books in the lobby. When I purchased my copy, I discovered that Victor had been serious. It really was autographed.

Victor has been honored for his many contributions. He was given a Medal of Honor by the Statue of Liberty Centennial Committee at a gala ceremony at Ellis Island. He has been knighted by the five Scandinavian countries -Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. (He says that five knights makes him a weekend.) Both the United States Congress and the United Nations have honored him. When Joel Goodman's Humor Project instituted their very prestigious International Humor Treasure award  in 1991, the first person honored was Victor Borge. He was selected for the Kennedy Center Honors in 2000.

Victor Borge created a tremendous legacy of comedy. Fortunately, it has been preserved for us to study, admire, and be inspired by.

Excerpted from The Clown In Times Vol. Six Issue Three

Copyright 2000 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson. All rights reserved.

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