OA: Samantha Stiles Column January 30, 2009

I salute Victor Borge, the funny piano man

In middle school, I hand stitched a fabric square with George Gershwin’s face on it for a quilt.

Granted, it was a school project. That’s just one example from my teenage Gershwin phase.

I had a two-disc box set of compositions by Gershwin. I’d pick one CD each night and listen to it before bed. When that CD was over, I’d play two R&B love songs by New Edition.

Earlier this month, I saw a chamber music presentation of “Porgy and Bess.” It brought back great memories.

Last week, I wrote about the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra’s performance of
“Gershwin, Copland & Bernstein” on Jan. 27 in Grand Junction (the encore performance is in Montrose on Feb. 8).

All of this reminiscing about Gershwin, a pianist and composer I admired, reminded me of another great pianist I really liked as a child: Victor Borge.

It took me a solid week to remember his name because I couldn’t get Liberace out of my head. Borge was funny, but not quite as flamboyant.

One night this week when I was putting clean pillow cases on my bed pillows, his name came to me. Just like that.

Borge, in case you haven’t heard of him, was a Danish pianist with a flair for humor. He was born Jan. 3, 1909, and died at the age of 91 on Dec. 23, 2000.

I remember reading about his death and feeling like a great hero of mine had died.

As a piano student, I got so tired of my stuffy old piano teachers. No fun or humor was ever infused into my training. Borge made playing the piano look enjoyable.

I must have seen one of his concerts on TV. He appeared on “Sesame Street” and I’m sure some PBS specials.

He would launch into Beethoven and comically fall off the piano bench mid-song. His performances were filled with visual gags and good, clean slapstick humor. He’d pick on people in the audience, or he’d tease his duet partners.

I loved watching him play. Who else could get kids to laugh along with random chord and tempo changes?

Some of Borge’s famous performances are on YouTube.

The American-Scandinavian Foundation is honoring Borge from Jan. 24 to May 2 and celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth with a Centennial Exhibition at the Scandinavia House in New York.

I dug up Borge’s obituary from The New York Times (nytimes.com).

As a Jew in Denmark, he was threatened by Nazis. Instead of acting out with fear or anger, he made jokes. He escaped to the United States in 1940 after the German invasion of Denmark. When he first arrived in America he didn’t speak a word of English. He learned the language by himself going to the movies.

When he was 90, Borge was still performing 60 concerts a year and releasing videotapes and CDs.

When asked why he continued to tour so much he said, “Why not? If it was a strain, I wouldn’t do it. But I can do it. I haven’t faltered yet. I know life. I have had a full measure of experience. Shouldn’t I take advantage of it?”


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