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Jewish World Review Dec. 29, 2000 / 3 Teves, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Victor Borge: The one-man Marx brothers

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- I SAW the obituary in the paper and laughed out loud. Not a very seemly thing to do at the death of a 91-year-old, but he would have understood.

I can picture The Great Pianist now in white tie, flipping his tails before he sat down on a piano bench that wasn't there. Once again he was racing his poor page-turner through a too-familiar bit of music in a mad rush to the finish line. Or maybe sitting there drumming his fingers while the page-turner hustled and rustled to catch up.

Victor Borge was young, then middle-aged, then old, but only in years. In his mind, he was always in his teen-aged prime.

There were times when he would follow the music right off the piano, and then follow it himself. He was from a different, better-humored, sillier yet subtler era, and it was a great era to visit for an evening.

After all those years we knew what was coming but not when, and somehow the musical punch lines never lost their punch. I'm not sure just how he did it, but the oldest act on the boards always surprised from year to year, even decade to decade.

It was never the same on television, where he was reduced to just one more variety act, a snippet, an unsatisfying simulacrum of the real thing.

No, you had to be there. You had to devote a whole evening to appreciate his kind of concert. You had to get the tickets, dress up, be shown to your seat pretend this was a symphony orchestra, give him time to throw his net around you, build you up, and then leave you with your knees shaking a bit on the way out, a little weak from laughter.

Then you realized that what was funny wasn't any particular joke, but the whole experience. And you felt better, giddy even. He was the rare comedian who made fun of no one -- except anybody who spelled art with a capital A.

Victor Borge laid a trap for anyone with aesthetic airs every time he approached that piano like the Great White Hunter the elephant ambushed. He was a one-man Marx Brothers, a reverse-image Oscar Levant without the mordant appeal, a comic who struck a sour note only on purpose, and left the audience feeling good in a good way, not worldly wise and utterly deflated.

Comedy is notoriously the most difficult of the dramatic arts, and musical comedy is perhaps the most difficult form of comedy, and classical musical comedy the hardest of all. Victor Borge made it look easy, even fun.

If he changed his act, its blithe spirit remained undisturbed. The sign outside the theater reading Victor Borge Tonight meant that there was still laughter in the concert hall, and memories waited to be renewed. And shared.

The best part about a performance by Victor Borge Tonight was the joy of introducing the next generation to him -- a son or daughter, a nephew or grandchild who was there under duress, thinking he was going to have to sit through another stultifying concert.

Yes, the old routines were familiar by the time Victor Borge had been around for a half century, and each time we knew they were corny, even campy, but we went anyway, and, unfathomably, laughed as hard as the first time. And maybe longer.

How did he do it? By building us up, by improbably leading us to expect that we were in for another ordinary evening at Carnegie Hall or in some municipal auditorium, and then springing the joke, sometimes so subtly that it took us surprisingly long to catch on. Now the clown prince of Denmark has died just short of his 92nd birthday. (He never did go for the conventional climax.)

Victor Borge was a fine pianist and pretty fair musician, but he was a great entertainer. Watching him was like being with an old friend in your own parlor, a talented friend who enjoyed music, not worshipped it. He didn't have an enemy in the world except pretension, and by the end of the evening, he had demolished it again. He was never intimidated by music or life. More admirable, he was never intimidating.

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