Webb Parmalee Hollenbeck was a mama’s boy, and mama was a stage mother. A frustrated actress, Mrs. Hollenbeck pushed young Webb into dancing school at the age of seven. When the father objected, she pushed him, too – right out of the family. Thereafter, queries about Mr. Hollenbeck were answered: “We never speak of him, he didn’t care for the theatre.”
The boy she raised was a perfect man of the theatre. He was to become one of the top dancers in the business, a professional opera singer, and an academy award nominated actor (twice). At age 7 he made his professional debut at Carnegie Hall in a children’s play called The Brownies. He followed this with the lead in Oliver Twist, and a play called The Master of Carlton Hall. A remarkable person by any measure, he graduated from high school at age 13, then studied painting and opera. In 1911, he sang with the Aborn Opera Company in Boston. Parts in La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, and Hansel and Gretel followed.
By the mid teens, Castle Mania was sweeping the land. As a trained dancer, Webb was in a position to take advantage of the craze. He teamed up with Bonnie Glass, and then Mae Murray, performing on the Keith circuit and in nightclubs, and teaching private classes at the Webb Dance Studio. After this, he would add eccentric dances to his more traditional ballroom repertoire, and he partnered with Mary Hay and Gloria Goodwin. By the late 20s, he was headlining at the Palace.
Throughout the twenties and thirties Webb starred in musical and straight plays and revues in both New York and London, and had numerous roles silent films. On Broadway, he starred in Ned Wayburn’s Town Topics (1915) with Gus Shy, Blossom Seeley, Will Rogers, Lew Hearn, Trixie Friganza, Adelaide & Hughes, and Jacob Adler; See America First (1916, Cole Porter’s first Broadway musical); Jack and Jill (1923) with Lina Basquette, Virginia O’Brien, and Ann Pennington; Sunny (1925-26) with Marilyn Miller; The Little Show (1929-30) and Three’s a Crowd (1930-31) both with Fred Allen, Portland Hoffa, and Libby Holman; Flying Colors (1932-33) with Charles Butterworth, Patsy Kelly, Imogene Coca, and Buddy and Vilma Ebsen; and As Thousands Cheer (1933-34) with Helen Broderick, Marilyn Miller, Ethel Waters, and Hamtree Harrington. He also starred in revivals of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1939) and Noel Cowards’ Blithe Spirit (1941-43) and Present Laughter (1946-47).
It wasn’t until he was 51 years old, when he was cast in the film Laura (1944) that Webb became the movie star that he is primarily known as today. He went on to star in the original version of The Razor’s Edge (1946), the popular “Mr. Belvedere” series (1948-51), Stars and Stripes Forever (1952, in which he portrayed John Philip Sousa), the original Titanic (1953) and many others, into the 1960s. His last picture was Satan Never Sleeps (1962).
For more on the history of vaudeville and vaudeville veterans like Clifton Webb, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.