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Celebrity Deathwatch: Victor Borge, Comic Pianist, 91


Victor Borge, clown prince of classical music, dead at 91

December 23, 2000
Web posted at: 8:05 p.m. EST (0105 GMT)

>From staff and wire reports

GREENWICH, Connecticut -- Victor Borge, the daffy pianist whose whimsical
approach to the classics earned him the moniker the "clown prince" of
Denmark, died Saturday. He was 91.

Borge died at home in sleep, his longtime manager, Bernard Gurtman, said.

For decades, Borge delighted audiences by deflating the pomposity of
classical music. He fell off his bench, played music upside down and in
weird ways, and repeatedly milked laughs from such classic routines as
"phonetic punctuation" in which he used goofy sounds to indicate commas,
periods and question marks in his monologue.

Borge returned Friday night from a three-week stay in Copenhagen, where he
was helping promote a book of photographs about him.

"He was really fine when we came home," his daughter Frederikke Borge told

He died "peacefully, no pain," she said. "He died of terminal life. He was
91 years old and his heart stopped."

"I think he meant the world to me, as every father does to every daughter,
but he meant a lot to a lot of other people, which made me proud to be his
daughter, and he was a very decent and generous man, which also made me
proud. I think he brought laughter to the world, and I think he was a very
gifted musician, and I'll miss him terribly."

Borge, who had not been ill, had been planning to tour Australia next week.
"It was just his time to go," his daughter said. "He's been missing my
mother terribly."

Borge's wife, Sanna Sarabel Borge, died September 19. His first marriage
ended in divorce.

He leaves behind five children, nine grandchildren and one

Borge found humor in classical music
Borges kept up a busy career into his 80s, touring and issuing videos,
including his most popular, "The Best of Victor Borge," which sold some 3
million copies.

"Some people reach the point where they must try desperately to hold on to
something that isn't there anymore, no matter how great they are," he said
in an interview in 1986. "This is where I am very, very lucky. We all do
what we can, we all have limitations. Apparently, within my limitations,
there is enough to go on and on and on and on."

Borge performed 100 or more nights a year, sometimes as pianist and
sometimes as conductor, usually as a clown but sometimes in dead earnest. In
his later years, he directed Mozart's "Magic Flute" in Cleveland and
prepared a concert version of "Carmen."

"I could probably play every night. I have enough offers. And sometimes it
is very tempting to do that," he said in a 1992 interview. "If I decide to
stay home, it's a very expensive sleep."

In 1999, Borge was one of five performers selected for the Kennedy Center

"He's never said a four-letter word, never had any dirt," Gurtman said.
"He's a total professional that you meet once in your life. He was a
trailblazer like Milton Berle, he did it once, and did it live."

A native of Denmark, Borge learned English by spending day after day in
movie theaters, and memorized some of his routines phonetically. Rudy Vallee
gave him a shot at radio. Then he became a regular on Bing Crosby's "Kraft
Music Hall."

In Hollywood, Borge appeared in "Higher and Higher" with Frank Sinatra in
1943 and "Meet the People" in 1944. He became a U.S. citizen in 1948.

In 1953, Borge's one-man show, "Comedy in Music," began a run of 849
performances, the Broadway record for a solo show. He revived it in 1977 in
a limited run of one month that was extended to two.

Borge married his second wife, in 1953. They had three children, Sann,
Victor and Frederikke. He had two children, Ronald and Janet, by his first

Despite his fame, Borge felt an insecurity that kept him from a leisurely
retirement or from indulging his passion for sailing.

"When you are trying to defend a position, or create a position, in any
field in your life, then every change, every move, has to be defended," he
said in 1986. "Every move can be the end of it or an advance. You have to be

His routines came from reality. Borge once saw a pianist slide right off his
bench while playing a concerto, and he recreated that disaster hundreds of

"I do a thing with a page turner. Everybody who has ever tried to have a
page turner knows that it is terribly dangerous, and the better musician you
are the more you have been exposed to mistakes," Borge said. "So, when I do
that routine the orchestra members just fall off their seats. They all know.

"Many in the audience also know it, but the ones who do not know the reality
will laugh at the clowning of it."

In his moments of serious playing, Borge was praised as a distinguished
proponent of the Romantic style, but his serious recordings amounted to one
side of a record. He said a microphone made him nervous, "because as a
musician I know how to do it and I know I can do it. And if it doesn't turn
out the way I really can do it, I don't want it."

He was born in Copenhagen on January 3, 1909, the youngest of five boys. His
father was a violinist for 33 years in the Royal Symphony, and expected his
son to follow suit. Instead, the boy took a liking to his mother Frederika's
instrument, the piano.

He made his concert debut at 13, and kept that up until 1934. His friends,
though, knew him as a parlor comedian, and in 1931 a new career opened when
he wrote the music for an amateur show, and then substituted for the star.

Borge made Adolf Hitler a butt of his jokes, and he was fortunate to be in
Sweden when the Nazis invaded Denmark in 1940. Soon after, he and his
American wife, Elsie, left for the United States, arriving with nothing but
their Scottish terrier.

In an Associated Press interview when he was 80, Borge said "luck, good
fortune and stamina" kept him performing.

"I never have to get 'up' for a performance," he said. "The moment I walk on
the stage, no matter what my mood, if I have any regrets or feel sick or in
pain, all that disappears. That is when the climax of my day occurs."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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