Born in Bayfield, Wisconsin, Van Cleave moved to New York City where he studied music with Joseph Schillinger. He worked in radio, as a staff arranger for Paul Whiteman, Andre Kostelanetz, and for CBS Radio. In 1933, he married Doris Blumenfeld, a Broadway chorus girl and the child of vaudeville actors. In 1945, Van Cleave moved to Los Angeles to pursue his musical career. His film credits, as composer and orchestrator, include Cinerama Holiday, The Colossus of New York, Easter Parade, Funny Face, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and White Christmas.