Meet Smiley Baldwin, Berlin's other legendary bouncer
© Flare Film GmbH
Just the mention of Berghain bouncer Sven Marquardt's name is enough to make clubbers' palms sweaty, but another famous Berlin doorman, Smiley Baldwin, made his name by leading with love.
Berghain is the stuff of legends. Behind its door is the promised land: the pinnacle of Berlin's hedonistic club culture – an anything goes oasis of cutting-edge techno. In front of its doors however is Sven Marquardt. Standing well over six-feet tall, with a face as heavily tattooed as it is pierced, Marquardt looms large as the club's head bouncer. It doesn't matter if it's SOPHIE or Ben Klock behind the decks, Marquardt’s word is law and he and his crew have helped make Berlin's nightlife what it is today. But they haven't done it alone.
Berlin's club scene was built from the ashes of a city once divided and there's one doorman in particular who represents the city's coming together after the fall of the Berlin Wall – Smiley Baldwin.
A key figure from the beginning, Baldwin takes his name from the broad grin that spreads across his face and his is a legacy that's in stark contrast to the frigid sobriety of Marquardt's squad. Now, thanks to a new documentary by film-maker David Dietl, the story of Berlin's 'other bouncer' is coming to the surface.
Born and raised on Saint Thomas, a tiny US territory in the Virgin Islands, Smiley moved to the mainland with his family on his 13th birthday, settling down in Riverside, a sprawling city in Southern California. It wasn't long until he was on the move again however, this time as a member of the US army.
Smiley quickly scaled the ranks while stationed in West Germany in the mid 1980s and was rewarded with a four-day trip to Berlin, where locals showed him around both sides of the city. "That left a lasting impression," Smiley tells us all these years later. He remembers thinking to himself at the time, 'If I can come ever back here, I'll definitely do it'.
Eventually, he did. Smiley returned to the German capital in 1987, as a military security officer and, he now readily admits, made the most of every second he was off-duty. "We were all buffed from training every day, looking like a million bucks – my confidence was up to snuff," he says with a knowing grin.
Today, Smiley celebrates his experiences during the early dawning of Berlin club culture at his own G.I. Disco nights, a throwback dance event celebrating the soul, funk and disco nights hosted by DJs like Steve Kastelic or the Magnificent Magoo (aka Jim McCauley). In a sign of things to come, German bands such as Berlin's Spliff and Stuttgart's Die Fantastichen Vier began developing their own German take on imported US dance music, while American GIs mixed with local women on the dancefloor.
We were all buffed from training every day, looking like a million bucks
Smiley left the army in 1992, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall started opening up the city, after meeting a woman. "I was ready to go to war, but my girlfriend, who was pregnant, goes, 'If you do that, you'll never see your kid again. You can't do that to me, I'm pregnant, you can't go to war'." Smiley admitted defeat and, when his military contract ended, bounced between countless uninspiring jobs. He shakes his head as he says, "You know, you wake up one day, look at yourself in the mirror and think, 'that ain't me, that ain't it and I ain’t that'." He soon found his calling, though.
Smiley is, as one might guess from his moniker, a people's person. Despite his background as a tough-talking GI, he has a kind heart and an open mind, and this earned him an important, frontline spot in the city's clubbing revolution.
West Berlin was already home to clubs like David Bowie and Iggy Pop's favourite haunt, the Dschungel, but, with the Berlin Wall crumbling, a spate of underground parties spread across the Mitte district in the East, beyond Checkpoint Charlie. Smiley wanted to explore it for himself, but was warned off. "They said, 'there's only skinheads there and they don't like black people – the East Germans, they're racist'."
The reality however was very different – a ghost city full of vacant halls, empty warehouses and ravers desperate to blow-off steam after years of living under Stasi rule. It was here that Berlin's cutting-edge events, bars and clubs found a footing. It was a utopia for anyone looking to let loose. "It was like, where are the people that don't like us?” Smiley laughs. "Because if this means they don't like us, I'll do this every day."
Smiley was an integral part of this new dawn in East Berlin. Hangouts like Obst and Gemüse, King Size and Tacheles sprang up, throwing mad parties almost every night of the week. "I was totally immersed in this Berlin-Mitte thing and it came to the point where I was moving seven days a week," he remembers. "I had this day job as a security man, right? And these night jobs at all these underground events."
If this means they don't like us, I'll do this every day
It was at one of these raves that Smiley and David Dietl, the director of a documentary looking at the city's legendary doormen called Berlin Bouncer, first met.
"I was looking for unique stories and curvy biographies that also told the story of Berlin, from a divided city to the party metropolis of today," Dietl says. "Smiley made being the bouncer and selector a sexy job. He got cool people interested in it and made a lasting impact on the Berlin club scene – a legacy that will continue as younger generations of bouncers learn the ropes under him."
Smiley's reputation precedes him. Walking up and down the queue with his trademark grin, he checks that everyone's having a good time, regardless of whether or not they make it in. Nowadays, he's known across the city as both the gatekeeper to iconic hotspots, like Berlin's Cookies club, and as the man to reach out to if you want to break into the business.
With Berlin's club scene now a big-money business attracting tourists from around the world, it's more important than ever to protect and promote the sort of inclusivity that Smiley and others have represented through the years. Today, artists and collectives from the city's black and queer communities, like Lotic, Hoe__mies and Room 4 Resistance, are finding success in the city, but building a more representative crowd starts at the door.
A Brief History Of… Berlin techno
"That's one of my biggest things – to be supportive in this community; looking out for men of colour and giving them that title and space," Smiley says. It's also a big part of his business. For the better part of two decades, he's run his own security company, dispatching new generations of doormen across the city.
"That's one of the pillars of our company: to make opportunities for people of colour who are lost in the system," he explains. "Look around. Where do most men of colour work? Whether they're back there washing dishes, or in the storage room, they don't put you out front and that's where I've gotten my company to be – the first face at an event." Smiley ensures the people he employs display the same warmth and friendliness as he does. It's all part of the training.
"What we're going to do is give everybody that's coming our way a great feeling," he explains. "I know how to do that, because I've done it before. Even if this isn't your inroad, you can take that with you – even if you want to do security somewhere else, you can take that with you."
Smiley will always play down his impact on the city's club scene, but it's the judgement calls made by him, and bouncers like him, that have shaped the course of so many nights. The standards set by Smiley and Sven Marquardt have even given rise to a cottage industry of locals who charge to help visitors get into the most popular clubs. However, Smiley's door policy remains unique. He leads with love, rather than making you sweat it out.
What we're going to do is give everybody that's coming our way a great feeling
"Smiley is a very caring person and has done a lot for many people to help them out in their lives," explains Dietl, before adding, "That’s something he'll never speak about himself and that makes it even more respectable."