Owning bars seemed like a natural extension, even a kind of logical extreme, to the entertainment skills and experience he'd accrued as a Coastie. So after he got out, he returned to Cleveland and quickly bought two joints: the Fidelity Sports Lounge on West 117th, which he converted to the private Oriole Club about six years later, and the Union Club Tavern on East 26th and St. Clair.
Noble says the Union Club, in particular, was a huge success.
"It worked out beautifully because every trade was there," Noble says. "from iron to steel, carpenters, electricians, elevators, longshoremen, you name it. They always had their union meetings there so that helped out." (The hardhats and blue-collar appurtenances that adorn the walls of the Union Club Tavern to this day -- appurtenances remarked upon in our own excursions with the Cleveland Bar Experiment -- Noble says were his idea, expanded upon by the bar's current owner).
And for a long time, Noble enjoyed the roller-coaster ride of bar-ownership, even loved it. But during those 13 years, he was nursing an itch in private, a drive to explore the world's faraway corners. Maybe that's why he read the Plain Dealer's travel section so sedulously. Maybe that's why the International Butler Academy held such allure for him. He says after he read the TIBA series but before he decided to take the course, he checked the website from time to time just to make sure it still existed, just to make sure he hadn't lost his chance.
"Don't get me wrong, I love Cleveland. Cleveland had been very very kind to me. Beautiful family, beautiful friends. But I wanted to do and see things, man. I wanted to see the world," Noble says. "So after the butler course, I sold those bars as fast as I possibly could."
GATEWAY TO THE WEST
For all the talk of Cleveland's renaissance, China's rebirth and explosive 21st-Century growth is in a category unto itself.
You know, or at least have heard the names, of the major coastal cities: Beijing, the capital in the north; Shanghai, the international business center with the radical skyline (and the largest "city proper" population in the world) that has served as a memorable backdrop in a number of recent action movies -- Mission Impossible 3, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Skyfall; Hong Kong, the autonomous territory on the South China Sea, long under British rule; Guangzhou, across from Hong Kong in the mainland, with a metropolitan-area population (that includes Shenzen, Dongguan and Macau) of 44 million.
You may be less familiar with the heartland, China's answer to the American Midwest and the West Coast. It's dotted with cities you've never heard of that are all significantly more populous than Chicago and L.A. Chengdu, for example, where Chris Noble lives, is home to 14 million souls. ("Are there, like, skyscrapers there?" Scene is embarrassed to say we inquired. The answer is yes. Among other things, it's home to the New Century Global Center, the largest building, by floor area, in the world). Chongqing, a two-hour train ride from Chengdu, is now China's most populous municipality, with an estimated 30 million people living there.
Many of these millions are very very rich. "Super-rich" is how the class of newly wealthy Chinese has been defined in such print venues as the New York Times and the New Yorker. And the quest for (and acquisition of) Western-style wealth has engendered a desire for Western-style amenities, Western-style service.
Enter Chris Noble. His first internship after he graduated from TIBA in the Netherlands was with WangJiang in Chengdu, a real estate firm keen on distinguishing its luxury apartments from all the others cropping up. Noble wasn't working for a specific family the way Carson does for the Crawleys in Downton Abbey. In some ways, he was positioned in for-sale units for effect. And the effect, as far as his employer was concerned, worked marvels. Noble tells a story:
"There was one lady who came to the project where I was working, a Chinese lady from the states, late 40s, early 50s. She had an entourage of eight people with her. They arrived at 10 a.m. and stayed all day, until 10 p.m. During that time, I'm serving them coffee, tea, whatever they want. At about 9:30, she calls me over and she goes 'Chris, I wanna tell you something. I'm buying a unit here today. I was looking at another high-end luxury place down the street, but I'm gonna buy here today, because of you and your service.' And I said, this is what I'm here to do. I'm proud to serve you. And she goes, 'I didn't just buy one unit, I bought 10.' That's a true story. She had a stack of credit cards this thick."
Noble makes a claw with his thumb and index finger that could grip a pop can.
So effective were Noble and his friend, a Swiss man who took TIBA's course the same time Noble did, that WangJiang hired them full-time. Shortly thereafter, WangJiang and TIBA met to discuss a "China Campus," which Noble would run.
"It was needed," Noble says. "China's funny, man. Twenty years ago, you could build it and they would come. Now, people are more choosy. You can have two luxury apartments -- same construction, same gold fixtures -- and the only thing that sets apart one from the other is the service."
TIBA China was officially established in the summer of 2014 -- it's still very recent -- and it's now run out of the WangJiang Hotel Chengdu. Noble says that many real estate firms in China now like to bundle butler service with the sale of luxury apartment units, and so most of the students, at first, were sent there (and paid for) by big firms or high-end hotels.
"But I'm starting to see a change," he says. People in China are beginning to recognize butlering as a viable career path and are paying for the course (about $8,000) themselves. Noble says it's certainly no small investment, but that in his experience, it's worth it.
"We offer worldwide assignment, and even if a placement isn't available right this moment, there might be in the future. Right now, there's a man building the biggest house ever made on the island of Hainan [near Hong Kong]. It's absolutely humongous. He's hiring two butlers --- he wants one male, one female who both must be good-looking and must be from Hong Kong; he won't budge on that -- and he's paying them $1 million RMB per year (~ $167,000). This is a life-changer not only for the individual but for the individual's family."
Noble knows all about life-changers: Taking TIBA's course in the Netherlands in the first place -- eight weeks he describes as more rigorous than boot camp -- was a risk; moving to Chengdu, to a city he thought would be all pagodas and pandas, was about as dramatic a shift from Cleveland, Ohio as one could imagine. What's the next big change for Chris Noble?
To hear him tell it, probably moving back home.
As China looks West, so too does Noble. He's enjoyed his years in Chengdu and the work he's done with TIBA, but he misses the states, and he says he's already eyeing lakefront property in Euclid. But what would a world-class butler do in Cleveland, Ohio?
"The hospitality industry, probably." Noble speculates. "I'm interested in hotel management."
He'll certainly have plenty to choose from.