Working With Victor Borge
A conversation with Leonid Hambro
This is an expanded version of the interview that appeared in the print magazine.
Victor Borge died on December 23, 2000, a few days before his 92nd (or, according to some, 91st) birthday. The great pianist Leonid Hambro collaborated on stage with Borge for a decade, touring the world and doing a long run on Broadway. Prior to that, Hambro was principal pianist for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and also had a busy schedule doing radio concerts on WQXR in New York and recording albums. We asked him how the collaboration came about.
Victor Borge was making recordings here in New York. After it finished, he was talking to the producer of the records, who was a friend of mine. Howard Scott was his name. And he said, "Howard, you know, I've been doing this show all by myself on stage, and I have a lot of funny ideas that I could do with another pianist, but it has to be a pianist who's absolutely first class. He has to be able to improvise. He has to have a sense of humor. And he has to have a good stage presence."
So Howard said, "I know exactly the right person for you. He's terrific.
But don't bother, because he's the busiest pianist in New York. There's
no way he could go with you."
So Borge said, "Listen, never mind. Introduce me anyway, I want to
talk with him. So we talked, and he said, "I'm going to do a month
in Las Vegas at
the Sahara Hotel. Would you like to do that?"
So, in the summertime -- it was in August -- I didn't have to be with the
Philharmonic or WQXR, so I said, "Gee, I'd love to do that." So
that's how it came about.
After we agreed on that, a few weeks later he said, "Lookit, I have to do a concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. I'd like you to do the concert with me."
I said, "Great. What do you want me to do?"
He said, "Why don't you come to the rehearsal and we'll talk about
So I came to the rehearsal. I was always a fan of his. He made me laugh
even when I heard the same thing over and again.
I listened to the rehearsal, and he said," How was it?"
I said, "Terrific. Great." So then I said, "Listen, what
are we to do?"
He said," Listen, I have to have lunch with Ormandy. Why don't you
come to his house -- I'll give you the address -- and at three o'clock we'll
talk it over."
I said, " Is the concert tonight?"
And I said, "At three o'clock you're going to tell me what to do for
eight o'clock? Will we be able to do it?"
He said, "Aw, you'll be able to do it."
Now, he'd never heard me play. He'd just heard the words about me from
different people, and they all said. "No, he's a terrific pianist,
don't worry about him."
So I said, "Well, look. I brought my white tie and tails, and I brought
a tuxedo. What do you want me to wear?"
He said, "No. That suit is fine."
I said, "The suit?"
He said, "Yeah."
I said, "I'm going to be up on stage?"
He said, "Yeah."
"And the suit is all right?"
I said, "Will you be wearing a suit?"
"No, I'll be wearing tails."
So I was mystified, but I didn't say anything. So I said, "Where should
I be, stage right or stage left?"
And he said, "Well, don't you want to hear the show?"
I said, "Sure."
He said, "Well, you'll be in the audience."
I said, "Well, then... when will I come up on stage?"
He said, "You'll know."
So, I went and sat at the show, and I'm lost in it. And then suddenly I
realize -- he said, "You know, ladies and gentlemen, I received a note
before I came on stage. There's somebody whom I haven't seen in many years.
He used to be a student of mine. He's in the audience tonight, and I'd love
you to hear him play. He's a WONDERFUL pianist--"
Oh, I almost forgot! Back to what happened at Ormandy's--
When we were at Ormandy's house I said, "What do you want me to play?"
He said, "I want you to play the Blue Danube."
Now, when you ask a pianist to play the Blue Danube, there's a very well
known arrangement of the Blue Danube. It's a virtuoso piece. It's extremely
difficult. Only a handful of pianists have played it in public, ever. I'm
one of them, but it's such a difficult piece. There's no way I'm going to
He said, "Why?" He said, "Just play the piece. I want you
to play it in D major."
I said, "Sure, I can do that."
He said, "Could you make up an introduction where you play all over
He said, "Now I want you to make mistakes. I want you to make mistakes
in different places, like this--," and he played some for me. And thenhe
showed me different places to make mistakes.
And then I thought to myself, "My God, that's the dumbest-- that's
the old burlesque joke. It's the dumbest joke. How can he do that? Here's
a class guy -- how can he do that?" But listen. It's his show.
And so now I'm listening to the show and he says "There's somebody
in the audience. George, are you there?"
I'm sitting in the rear of the hall, and I think maybe it's my cue. So
I'm beginning to walk down the aisle very timidly, because I wasn't sure.
And then he said, "George! Yeah, yeah, yeah! Geo- come, come, come!"
Now there wasn't any stairway up to the stage. He had to give me a lift.
I had to put my foot up, and he pulled me up onto the stage. And he says,
"Ladies and gentlemen..." He says, "You know, I don't recognize
you, it's been so many years. I recognize your suit."
You know, like that. Funny jokes. And then he said, "Would you like
to hear him play?"
"Oh, yeah," they clap.
He says, "What would you like to play?"
I said, "The Blue Danube?"
You know, I mean, I didn't-- What was brilliant about that was, he didn't
give me any direction. And in the ten years I was with him, he never gave
me any direction on how to behave on the stage. So that it was always utterly
natural. See, when I walked down the aisle, I wasn't sure. And that not
being sure registered, so that the audience thought, "Sure, that's
Well. Now, the third concert I played with him, after we did Las Vegas.
We did that, and we did a couple of other things. We were driving home to
the hotel, and he said, "That dumb audience. They didn't get my best
And I said, "Mr. Borge, you forgot the setup line. You usually say,
'blah-blah-blah-blah-blah,' and when you hit em on the punchline they know
where you're coming. You forgot the blah-blah-blah.
So he turned around and looked at me, and for a split second I thought he was kidding. And then I realized he was dead serious. He said to me, "You take care of the piano playing, I take care of the comedy." So I said, "Oh, is that how it is? Fine."
So the next night, "How is the show?" "Terrific." "How's
the show?" "Marvelous." "How's the show?" "Fantastic."
"How's the show?" "Wonderful."
I'm just-- I didn't... Now, I learned that there wasn't a single show he
did that he didn't fuck something up. But it didn't MATTER. Because they
didn't know what it was supposed to be. And even if he fucked it up, he
knew how to get them back.
So during that time when I first joined him he used to play Clair de Lune.
And he would introduce it by saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going
to play Clair de Lune, by Claude Debussy, who unfortunately is dead."
And that got a laugh. It's not funny, but because you know when a comedian
is known as a funny man, they laugh.
And that went on for many, many performances. And then he said, "I'm
going to play Clair de Lune, by Claude Debussy, who unfortunately is dead,
I sincerely hope, because they buried him quite a few years ago." Well,
that got a big laugh.
And that went on for a while. And he improvised, "I sincerely hope,
because they buried him quite a few years ago... I didn't even know he was
That went on for weeks, and weeks, and weeks -- and he never added anything.
So one day I said to him, "Borge, how come you're not adding something
to it, you know, every once in a while?"
And he said, "Don't you remember studying Bach fugues?"
I said, "What are you talking about?"
He said, "Don't you remember when you studied the Bach fugues -- when you have episodes, you never do more than three. It's the same with a joke. When you're doing jokes, you never do more than three. Three is the optimum."
And I suddenly realized. I mean, here he knows about humor. Even though
he improvises, he understands the principles of it.
So we're now -- 1963 -- in Melbourne, Australia. And it was my job to show
my face to him before he walked out on stage. And so he's standing at the
wing when I come in, and he said, "What's going on out there?"
I said, "What do you mean?"
He said, "That audience. Something is going on."
And I listened, and I said, "No, that's just blah-blah-blah. You know,
the audience is just talking."
He said, "No, there's something different."
And then I suddenly realized. I said, "Did you see this afternoon's
He said, "No, what?" That was the afternoon that the Profumo
scandal broke. You know, with Christine
Keeler and some minister
of war. So I showed him the paper, and he reads the headline and the
lead paragraph. And he said, "I must say something funny about. My
God, what can I say that's funny about this? Do you have anything funny
to say about this?"
I say, "I think so."
He said, "Tell me."
I said, "I'd rather not."
He said, "What do you mean you'd rather not?"
So I said, "Well, you know, you explained to me that I'm the pianist
-- I'm the musician and you're the comedian -- and I'd rather not."
And he said, "No, no. I have to say something about this. Everybody is talking about this. Tell me."
I said, "I'd rather not."
He said, "Why not?"
I said, "Because if you don't say it right -- and a lot of times you
don't say things right -- and it doesn't work, then you'll say to me, 'What
are you giving me such a terrible line for. I don't want that.'"
He said, "No. I'll... I'll do what you say. What should I say?"
I said, "Well, I'm going to tell you how to say it. But you've got
to promise that this is just this way you're going to say it. Because you've
taught me a lot about humor, and this is one of the things that I learned.
I said, "Tonight when you walk out on stage--." Now his opening
was, before he would walk out on stage he would take a terrific drag of
a cigarette, and then he'd walk out. He would open his mouth and blow the
smoke out, and he would step back and say, "Holy smoke." That
was his opening line. And of course, it instantly gets the audience going.
I said, "Tonight, when you blow the smoke, don't say "Holy Smoke."
Say, "Holy Profumo." Now, there are going to be some people that
will understand it, but it doesn't matter if they understand it or not,
because you're going to follow it by saying, "You'd think the minister
of war... could have a little piece."
Now, that turned out to be THE joke. And he was quoted in all the papers, and he got credit for the joke. When I told him that, by the way -- you know how comedians do -- say "the minister of war could have a little piece," he said
"That's very funny." He didn't laugh or anything. He said "That's very funny." And then from then on he would ask me.
We came to a place where I played on three pianos, his piano, and my piano
for the two-piano work, and then an offstage piano. And then one day we
came to a place where my piano on the stage was very old, and the keys were
very yellow, it was so old. So he had the microphone -- the audience could
never hear me -- and I turned to him and I pointed to my keys, and I said,
"My elephant smoked too much."
He thought that was very funny, and he said, "Can any of you in the balcony see Mr. Hambro's keys? Mr. Hambro just told me that his elephant smoked too much." So he was willing to give credit.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Leonid Hambro took recently participated in 10th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony at Harvard, where he and Ecuadoran ex-President Jamil Mamoud went head-to-piano. Hambro also delivered a lecture/performance at the Ig Informal Lectures at MIT.]
© Copyright 2000 Annals of Improbable Research (AIR)