Christopher Noble is fond of saying that he's world famous... in China. He's the rakish central figure in a Hollywood-caliber commercial spot that swarmed the TVs of Sichuan Province and points east in early May. It was a commercial advertising something called the International Butler Academy, in Chengdu.
The International Butler Academy, China (TIBA) turns out to be the satellite campus of a castle-based school in the Netherlands that trains men and women from around the world in the fine art of extremely upscale service. Think white gloves, coattails, mises-en-place. The Downton Abbeyish site of this specialized training, in the Netherlands, is the gloriously Dutch Huize Damiaan, in the town of Simpelveld.
In China, TIBA in Chengdu is the only game in town. And perhaps it comes as little surprise, but butlering is booming in the world's most populous nation, where "millionaires are born every day," according to TIBA chairman Robert Wennekes. That's great news for Chris Noble. He's the 45-year-old training director there, and he happens to hail from Cleveland, Ohio.
Noble descends from a tree of distinguished local bar owners -- Pickwick & Frolic's Nick Kostis is his godfather -- and for 13 years, he owned two Cleveland bars of his own. One on the east side, one on the west. But a few years after reading a newspaper series on the International Butler Academy, he decided to pursue a different sort of dream.
"I remember the line from the last paragraph of the last story in the series," Noble says on a sunny afternoon in Cleveland. It's only his second trip home in more than three years. "It said, 'It's living the life without having to pay the bills.' I folded up my paper and told myself at that moment, 'This is what I'm going to do.'"
Owning bars afforded Noble certain luxuries -- "I never had to punch a clock," Noble says, for instance -- and so, one day in 2012, he took eight weeks off to attend one of TIBA's training sessions in Europe. The rigorous curriculum is the same one he now oversees in China, (though his own course is six weeks, as opposed to eight: "Fewer field trips," he explains). The training often involved grueling 16-hour days of endless information and meticulous physical activity: house-management, table-management, cigars, wine, laundry, the whole deal.
"You will be responsible for the rest of the staff, and possibly the yacht, the jet and other properties," TIBA apprises potential students on its website. "You will be the estate or house manager, sometimes the chauffeur and at times even the housekeeper, handyman, accountant, gardener etc. Whatever your role, we will teach you to do it with style and grace."
Noble got hooked in a big way.
"It was right up my alley," he says.
So when he returned to Cleveland after the course concluded, he sold his bars and made his life's new direction official.
"Look, I was getting burned out," he says. "It was the same people, the same stories. A customer may be a great customer, but he'll tell you the exact same story that he told you eight years ago. Not eight hours or eight days ago, eight years. It was one of these things where it was like, if I don't get out now, I'll be owning bars in Cleveland for the rest of my life."
Right now, Chris Noble's nursing a hard cider at Johnny's Little Bar & Grille, the watering hole on Frankfort Avenue between West 6th and West 9th. He's admiring the woodwork and shaking his head at the photos on the wall with an almost Proustian nostalgia. He's dressed in a three-piece greenish suit that presents as a sheeny strain of tweed. His hair is parted with the same geometric precision of Europe's celebrity footballers. And if you're wondering whether or not he's wearing cufflinks and a tie tack, rest assured that he is.
"Nothing has changed since the day we built this place," Noble says (except, perhaps, himself).
Back then, before it was Johnny's Little Bar & Grille, it was just Little Bar. Noble's step dad Tony Harris owned what is now Johnny's but what was then called Isis, and Noble says it was the biggest lesbian bar between New York and Chicago, visited by such trailblazing entertainment luminaries as Lily Tomlin and Patti Labelle. In 1982, Noble says, Isis hosted a $100,000 light show, unheard of at the time.
Nineteen eighty-two was the same year that Noble, his brother, his mom, Tony Harris, Nick Kostis, a carpenter and an electrician built Little Bar, adjacent to Isis. They gutted the place, re-did the wood, fixed the doors.
"Those stock certificates on the wall?" Noble says, gesturing to the corner where they're framed to this day. "My dad dug them up from someplace and put them up. And the pictures of that building being demolished? My dad took those pictures."
Tony Harris also owned the Ontario Street Lounge, so Chris Noble's teenage years were spent in the kitchens and on the floors of downtown bars -- back when Cleveland was slightly more, shall we say, rough and tumble than it is today. Back then, the Warehouse District was literally full of warehouses.
"Cleveland was a funny time in the '80s, man," Noble says. "It was a depressed economy, and besides a couple little bars here and there, it was empty."
But that didn't deter the crowds. Noble remembers having to install a makeshift dumb-waiter in Little Bar (a garage door opener and aluminum trays) to accommodate all the patrons on the second floor. Today the second floor is dark and dusty, home to bathrooms but otherwise attic-esque. Not back then.
"It was packed every single day," Noble says, energized by the memory. "And while my friends were out chasing girls, I was here or over at Ontario Lounge every night and every weekend all summer, washing dishes, cleaning up, checking the booths for spare change. This is where I grew up... And if anyone ever tries to tell you Little Bar has been around forever, unless they mean since 1982, it hasn't."
After high school, Noble bounced along a rudderless trajectory that's familiar to a lot of teenagers without immediate plans. He tried out college, but he and Kentucky's Morehead State didn't get along so well. He did some odd jobs for awhile, but otherwise "just kind of floated through life," says Noble.
In '93, at 23 years old, he joined the Coast Guard, ultimately serving for eight years in both Alaska and Florida.
"And that's where things started clicking for me, in terms of high-end service," Noble says. "I was quickly tapped for front-office work, and I became part of the command cadre. I helped entertain guests: foreign dignitaries, domestic consular generals, politicians, you name it. Every politician in the lower 48 wanted to come to Alaska in the summer months to go hunting or whatever, and that's where it started."
When he was transferred to St. Petersburg, Florida, he was assigned similar work.