A veteran of Berlin's nightlife scene, Smiley Baldwin served in the American military, patrolling the divided city in the 80s before he became a doorman. The documentary "Berlin Bouncer" profiles his unusual story.
"I try to avoid the dry, uptight behavior that's normally associated with this job," explains doorman Smiley Baldwin in the documentary Berlin Bouncer. Later, a man approaches Baldwin at a club entrance and says to him, "You're a legend."
Berlin Bouncer, released on April 11 in Germany, takes audiences on a journey through Berlin's recent history by portraying three legendary — and powerful — nightlife guardians of the front door. The film starts with the fall of the Berlin Wall and features Baldwin, as well as two other prominent doormen, Sven Marquardt, the iconic Berghain bouncer with the heavily tattooed face, and Frank Künster, who famously managed former clubbing hotspots including Delicious Doughnuts and King Size.
Director David Dietl navigates the film with Berlin as a vibrant, pulsating backdrop set against the personal lives of each bouncer. And while each of their stories is related to the Berlin Wall, the fact that Baldwin landed in Germany is directly tied to it: He was stationed in West Berlin for the United States Army.
A comfort zone Berlin
Baldwin was attracted to the German city's Cold War atmosphere: "I visited Berlin as a soldier for a weekend trip — it must have been in 1984-85. And I got such a great feeling," he told DW. "People got a first-hand, front-seat position on the political and governmental policies the Americans were doing."
After his first encounter, he knew that he wanted to return to Berlin, so he devised a way to make it happen: "I applied to come back to the city to be stationed here and I won the application. And within two weeks I knew this would be my new home. The whole atmosphere kind of fit to me like new 501 jeans."
As Baldwin was stationed in the divided metropolis, he acted as a military policeman patrolling and securing the American sector. He also had a combat role, but "nothing happened," he assured.
The hot sounds of the Cold War
Cheering up the Cold War drab, a club scene for American troops developed in West Berlin in the late 70s and 80s. The GI discos fused different genres: club music, jazz-funk, rock and roll, soul, R&B, hip hop or Motown hits. By bringing their favorite music with them, African-American GIs largely contributed to introducing these sounds to Germany.
Baldwin became part of that scene and is still committed to preserving the GI discos' cultural legacy to this day. For instance, in 2013, he helped organize an exhibition at the Allied Museum in Berlin that looked back on American music in Germany from the late 70s to the early 90s. Monthly GI Disco music nights are also held at the 260 Grad club in Berlin, where he stands at the door.
From military man to doorman
When Baldwin's military duty finished, he found himself wondering about his next steps. Although he didn't jump instantly from the military to nightlife, it became a seamless transition for him.
"I wanted to try something else, but I came back to security because it's something I can visualize. It's the way I learned it in the military, the way I practiced and trained over the years. That's why I got back into the security business because it was second nature to me at that time and it was something I thought I could turn into a business," he said.
Baldwin has been operating his own security business, which provides safety and protection for not only clubs but also events, for over 22 years now.
Since Baldwin has been working doors for over two decades, he has witnessed how Berlin's nightlife has changed since the coutry's reunification. He says that the underground scene was definitely more active at the time: "There was stuff going on from Sunday to Sunday. In a very short time, I was working every day. I was having fun. Things were changing and I wasn't even noticing."
"The way that the underground scene was working in Berlin Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, everyone was connected and we were our own friends. People were seeing one another every day and it wasn't just nighttime — there were events going on in the daytime."
Nowadays, those two Berlin neighborhoods don't have much of a club scene left to speak of. Many of the legendary party spots where Baldwin used to work — such as Rodeo, Cookies and 103 — are now closed.
Club culture basics
In Berlin Bouncer, Baldwin reveals a sensitive side that perhaps contradicts the stereotypical image of a bouncer: "I don't like hurting people's feelings. And every time I tell someone no, I'm very well aware that I just hurt someone's feelings. I want everyone to be in a club listening to great music but I'm constrained by space and time and I have to try and get the best out of space and time."
With the restricted capacity of Berlin clubs, he cannot give entry to everyone standing in line. Plus, one of his jobs as doorman includes having to pick and choose a diverse mix of party people for the night.
For those hoping to get through the door, here's Baldwin advice: "Only one tip: be yourself. Originality is what it's all about. Back in the day, if somebody was a punk, you didn't go to H&M to buy a punk outfit. They were punks because they made their own outfits."
Read more: How to get past Berlin's toughest bouncers