When Victor Borge came to Minot some years ago to put on his program of music and comedy at the Norsk Hostfest, my wife, Gerda, and I were his hosts.
We met him at the airport with a limousine and took him to a press conference. When asked if he had been looking forward to the event, he answered, “Yes, I’ve been looking forward to it all my life.” From the moment he arrived, he kept people guessing what he would say next.
Despite his international fame as an entertainer, Borge was a very plain-appearing person. He traveled with his son, who was his business agent. There was no entourage with dozens of suitcases. He spoke with the inimitable Danish accent that I had come to enjoy in my wife’s, family. Try as I will, I can’t make my Norwegian sound Danish. While dining together, I noticed that he followed a simple diet.
Borge had complete communication with his audience. He claimed that he didn’t plan his programs in advance. He knew what he could do, but waited until he walked on to the stage to decide what it would be. He singled out people in the audience and involved them in the program.
Borge stopped his routine when a freelance photographer moved toward the stage. He said, “You want my picture? Here.” Then he pulled a photo out of his pocket and gave it to the photographer. It was not possible to tell if he welcomed the interruption or if irritated him. After the concert, he told me it was an irritation.
The famed Dane was not only about comedy. Underneath was a person who was serious. During breakfast the next morning, we talked about nuclear sanity and world peace. He was deeply concerned about the future of the world and the good of other people.
Born Borge Rosenbaum on Jan. 3, 1909, to a musical family in Copenhagen, he gave his first recital when he was 8. At age 14, he was one of the first European pianists to perform Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. When the conductor began beating the wrong time, Borge walked to the podium and pointed to the maestro’s error. Then, throwing a smile and a wink to the audience, he returned to the piano. That launched his career in comedy.
Fortunately for Borge, he was in Sweden on April 9, 1940, when Hitler invaded Denmark. The Nazis didn’t find his jokes about Der Fuehrer funny. Both his humor and his Jewish heritage made him a target of Nazi threats. He caught the last ship out of Finland in order to come to America, where he began a new career with Bing Crosby on the Kraft Music Hall.
Many governments have knighted the Danish virtuoso. He quipped, “Now, finally, I have enough knights for two weekends.” His books are sold at concerts. I bought “My Favorite Intermissions.” It’s a humorous biographical sketch of the great musicians. It reminds me of a book that I read about 50 years ago, “The Rise and Fall of Practically Everybody.” His favorite piano is the Bosendorfer. It has 97 keys instead of the usual 88 and costs more than $50,000.
People wonder if Borge ever plays a whole piece through. I asked him if he was going do that at his Hostfest performance. He answered, “We’ll see,” and he did. Even as an octogenarian, he was still a pro, and he made it an evening to remember. In remembrance of our visiting, he sent me an autographed picture.
Borge relished his epithet, “The Great Dane.” He died Dec. 23, 2000, after returning from trip to Denmark. He sent me a picture of himself that I have on my wall.
Next week: My unforgettable Swedish friend.
ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.