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A champion of classical music for more than 70 years, comedian Victor Borge has become a timeless work himself
By Tim Carman, from the Houston Sidewalk.
At any minute, at any time of day, you can turn on your television, log onto the Internet or pick up a magazine and learn something wicked about someone. President Clinton with a cigar in the Oval Office? Yep, it's true. Marilyn Manson with a pocket knife in Los Angeles? What a self-mutilating cutup! Charles Barkley with a drunk bar patron in Orlando? Yes, Sir.
Who among us is left to admire?
I propose an unlikely candidate: Victor Borge. The pianist, conductor and comedian is a clown prince among men. As he approaches his 90th birthday, Borge, who performs Saturday, Oct 17, at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston, is a paragon of the virtues we pretend to hold dear: He's highly educated in the classics (aside from his usual gig, he conducts symphonies around the world), he's a family man (he and his longtime wife, Sanna, have five children and nine grandchildren), he's generous (he has hosted countless fund-raisers), modest (he once said, "I think my greatest accomplishment is that I can make people happy"), creative (his entire act ought to be enshrined in the Smithsonian and probably will be one day) and, of course, funny.
The latter category includes so many classic bits that it would take more room than we have on the entire Sidewalk site to catalog them. But let me indulge in a couple of personal favorites:
Borge's definition of "recitative" — "The tune will be along any minute."
Another fave is one of Borge's evergreen performance pieces: The concertmaster enters a selection a beat behind everyone else in the orchestra, Borge stops the piece and orders the offending musician offstage, where a gunshot is soon heard. Borge looks at the rest of the nervous first-violin section and gestures for them to move up a chair.
Borge's comedy works on two levels: On a more superficial level, it works as simple, broad, cartoonish humor, accessible to both children and non-musical adults, but on a deeper plane, it pokes fun at one of the things that frightens us most — classical music. Any good psychologist will tell you it's easier to ridicule the things that we don't understand or that intimidate us. Why do you think Bill Gates is such an easy target? Borge gleefully plays on those universal desires, but with an ulterior motive that is absolutely insidious: He actually wants to convert you to classical music! In a real sense, Victor Borge, during the 70-odd years of his career, has been a one-man PR machine for classical music, serving it up to people who didn't know they wanted it.
His management folks estimate Borge has performed for more than 12 million people during more than 6,000 concerts. That doesn't include the millions who have bought his videotapes, albums and books. Some religious denominations wish they could reach that many people with the potential for conversion. Yet Borge wins his converts not through shameless proselytizing, but through a combination of pure pianistic skill and pure Swiftian satire.
Even at an early age, Borge had a penchant for satire. Born in Copenhagen to a father who played violin in the Danish Symphony Orchestra, Borge was a child piano prodigy who regularly performed at his parents' dinner parties — at least until his folks discovered he was ridiculing their guests by announcing he would play a Beethoven sonata and then performing a piece of his own. His goal was to expose these people, who cooed that his Beethoven was beautifully articulated, as cultural frauds and hypocrites. That same sort of mean-spirited satire would land Borge in hot water with the Nazis when they invaded his homeland. The Germans soon blacklisted Borge, then a popular entertainer in his native country, forcing the musician to flee to America in 1940.
Borge is now a citizen of the United States, and has been for some time. But it's interesting to note that he is still referred to as the Great Dane, a play on words that has layers of meaning. Aside from the obvious pun on his heritage and stature as a performer, it also suggests two other things: that Borge still strongly aligns himself with his native country and that Americans still don't call him one of their own. Maybe that's out of respect, but maybe it's because, in some deeply embedded part of our psyche, we know that someone of his grace, skill and compassion could not have been nurtured in the cheap, glitzy U.S. entertainment industry.
Borge, after all, could have been a concert pianist, if he so desired. His skills are regarded highly by those who really know; a noted conductor once wrote, "There is more to Borge's piano playing than he allows us to hear. But in those fleeting moments we recognize an elegance of touch, a limpidity, a grace, a transparency, a talent that sets apart the few from the many." So why didn't Borge go the truly classical route? A reporter once posed that question. Borge's response was priceless — poetic, elliptical and philosophical:
"You can't ask why a tree grows the way it does. My tree is a unit that grows the way it's supposed to grow."
Add another virtue to Borge's list: He knows his place in this world, content to play his role and let others do what they do best. How many of us have tried to wedge ourselves into spaces in our lives where we don't really fit? There's a lesson here.
So am I canonizing a man who undoubtedly has shortcomings and limitations? Of course. I can name one of them right now: Borge no longer does his famous tumble from the piano bench, a concession to age. But here's my real point: We need people to admire. I look around and see damn few. Victor Borge is one of them. Make a pilgrimage to Galveston and pay your respects to a great man, the Great Dane.
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