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Victor Borge Honored by the Kennedy Center

by Marshall H. Cohen

Millions of fans of Victor Borge believed that they might have to wait another Millennium to see this great American artist justly rewarded. At last Victor Borge received the Kennedy Center Honor, the nation's top honor in the arts. Mr. Borge was joined by actor Sean Connery, dancer-choreographer Judith Jamison, actor Jason Robards, and musician Stevie Wonder at the December 5th, Kennedy Center gala.

Borge with granddaughters Lucy and Eliza. Click to enlarge image.

Can you imagine how it feels to be the winner of this top prize in the arts---there is no where else to go! No Oscar, or Emmy can beat this one. First, award winners are presented their honor decoration at a dinner hosted by the Secretary of State, Madeleine K. Albright. The winners are given a special decoration consisting of a multi-colored ribbon representing the seven arts, with three brass plates containing the name of the artist, date, and Kennedy Center Honor etched on each of the three brass plates. They are hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton at the White House, escorted to the presidential box at the Kennedy Center where they are feted by top international stars. Of course, Walter Cronkite hosts the show--- tributes, and dances, and skits, and nostalgia are presented to the audience, most of whom have paid $2200 after first having to be invited to purchase a ticket. (The gala is a fund-raiser for the performing arts.) Few artists achieve this honor. It is the artistic equivalent to the Presidential Medal of Honor, and the Congressional Medal of Honor----it is the nation saying thank you for lifting our spirits, giving us something beyond our ordinary daily lives. It is the President saying thank you, peers in the profession saying thank you --and what a guest list--Michael Douglas, Patrick Stewert, Andre Previn, Edward Albee, Christopher Plummer, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Frank Langella, to name only a few of hundreds of world class stars in attendance--and it is the average American speaking through some mystical applause meter also having a voice in the process.

But back to Victor Borge. Borge, perhaps more than any other artist appeals to so many senses at the same time. He is, of course, a virtuoso pianist, and a supreme master of the comic element. Borge speaks with a reassuring, and comforting voice, retaining just a slight, charming trace of a Danish accent. I have seen a score of Borge's performances, both in English and Danish from 1963 to the present. His performances are always refreshing and surprising. One moment he is playing a bar or two from a most difficult Mozart piece, and the next slipping through his seat belt and falling off the piano bench. His phonetic punctuation, (Borge reads a piece of literature and loudly blurts out the commas and periods into the mike) was such a huge success that the routine was used to cure reading disabilities among war vets.

I recall speeding to Hartford, Conn. from Pawtucket, R.I. to catch Borge's show in 1963. A policeman stopped me, and about to write a ticket asked why I was speeding. When I told him I was late for a Victor Borge performance, he ripped up the ticket, saying that Borge was his favorite entertainer. Around 35 years later , I caught one of Borge's shows in Copenhagen. The audience gave him eight curtain calls--not bad for a man who at that time was approaching 90 years of age. During the past decade, I arranged two luncheon press conferences for Victor Borge at the National Press Club. At one, he followed Dr. Jack Kevorkian by a few weeks and Borge quipped: "When I heard that Dr. Kevorkian spoke here recently, I expected to be speaking to an empty hall!" Well, the hall was filled.

Mr. Borge's many awards reflect not only a 60 year career (so far) of sharing his artistic gifts with a grateful, and usually sold-out audience worldwide, but for his humanitarian deeds as well. In 1963, Mr. Borge, along with Richard Netter, created the "Thanks to Scandinavia" scholarship fund in gratitude for the heroic deeds of Scandinavians during the Holocaust. He also sponsors an annual music scholarship in Tivoli Park, Copenhagen, in honor of his father Bernard Rosenbaum, a distinguished member of the Royal Danish Philharmonic Orchestra ( and who waited until he was 62 years old to father Victor!).

Mr. Borge was awarded the Medal of Honor by the Statue of Liberty Centennial Committee, and knighted by each of the five Nordic countries (Borge says that after being knighted five times I became a weekend!). He has been received at the White House by every president since Roosevelt. These are honors of a high international level that few artists can match. But the spontaneous honors expressed by Borge's fellow Danes are just as important and impressive. I recall standing near Victor Borge on the docks of Copenhagen, not far from the area where "The Little Mermaid" sits in the harbor. The spectacular Danish Tall Ship, The DANMARK, was approaching the mooring. The Captain of the Danmark spotted Borge on the quay, and ordered his officers to man the ceremonial cannon. The Captain gave the command three times-- "Victor Borge"---BOOM---"Victor Borge"--BOOM--"Victor Borge"--BOOM!!

Borge's life story reads like a Dammon Runyan tale. He began his career as an organist at Copenhagen funerals. By the 1930's he became one of Denmark's leading performers, and was blacklisted by the Nazis for his humor which pushed the Borge-Nazi relationship to the limit. One gag which enraged Hitler:
"What is the difference between a Nazi and a Dog?"
"The Nazi lifts his arm!"

Borge fortunately escaped to the United States on board the S.S. American Legion, the last passenger ship to leave Northern Europe. In the United States, Borge has made theatrical history. His "Comedy in Music" ran 849 performances on Broadway, a Guinness record. His Video tape, "The Best of Victor Borge" sold a record number of units--about 3 million. His autobiography, Victor Borge: An Autobiography, published two years ago is a favorite in Denmark, but is only available in Danish (for the time being) and consequently may only be read by five million Danes!!

So what took the Kennedy Center Board of Directors so long to find Victor Borge!! Many reasons have been cited over the years--- his close identification with Denmark, just plain internal politics, and once a U.S. Congressman of no small influence told me that "neither has Elizabeth Taylor received the award!" It doesn't matter now. They found Victor Borge. Well, of course there is plenty of talent around the nation, and only 5 awards each year. But there are only a few "one of a kind"....Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Fred Astaire, Albert Schweitzer, Robert Frost, Mozart, John Glenn----and now Victor Borge!!! But among these luminaries, only Victor Borge has given advice on how to boil a three-minute egg: "Bring a piano into the kitchen, and play the Minute Waltz three times!"
Congratulations Victor.

Marshall H. Cohen, Photojournalist

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