Berlin's Other Legendary Bouncer on How to Get Past the Door

When it comes to letting people into a club, Smiley Baldwin is all about keeping it respectful.
Berlin bounc
Smiley Baldwin. Photo: courtesy of Desperados

If you think of Berlin bouncers, you’ll probably imagine the tattooed and pierced face of Sven Marquardt, Berghain’s famous door staff. But Marquardt’s not the only well-known door person in town – far from it. If you’re from Berlin, or spent enough time sampling the German capital’s nightlife, then there’s a good chance you’ve either seen Smiley Baldwin’s beaming face at the club door, or one of his security crew. Light and avuncular in person – spend a bit of time chatting to him and it’s not hard to work out how he got that “Smiley” moniker. 


Baldwin’s originally from Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. His family moved to California at 13. When he finished school, Baldwin signed up for the U.S. Army and requested to be sent to Germany in 1985 after training. Stationed near Frankfurt for two years, he visited Berlin in his downtime and knew he wanted to go back. After returning to California, he asked to be sent to Berlin, where he worked as a military policeman for five years. 

His time there spanned the collapse of the Berlin Wall, East Germany and the Soviet Union. The former East Berlin presented new DIY party opportunities to the young people and students pouring in from across Germany to occupy the newly empty apartment buildings. It’s there, in ‘95, that Baldwin first made his step into nightlife security, beginning a career that would see him ultimately work the doors at clubs like Tresor, Cookie (where he worked for 17 years) and Rodeo. His security company can now call on 130-40 personnel, he says.

Getting past the door at a Berlin clubBerghain, for instance – has always put the fear of God into people. That has a knock-on effect on how they view security staff. This writer, for example, simply stuck to Berlin’s cigarette smoke-filled bars instead, as I preferred not knowing if I was Berghain-appropriate or not. But it turns out this level of trepidation and fear is common across Western Europe, as new research from Desperados has found that 50% of partygoers don’t feel safe on a night out, and that 48 percent find door staff intimidating. One in 5 partygoers say they wouldn’t approach security due to their body language. Baldwin, along with sociologist Dr. Phie van Rompu, has teamed up with Desperados in partnership with the global training organisation, Good Night Out Campaign, to promote the doorperson diploma, “a first-of-its-kind security staff education programme”. We spoke to Baldwin to hear about his life and career, to learn about his “soft skills” and the new training module, to better understand the ways of the nightclub bouncer.


VICE: I understand you were working in the military… How come you actually decided to stay in Berlin after your stint was over?
Smiley Baldwin:
I was a fan of Germany, then I came to Berlin and became the biggest Berlin fan. I was a fanboy of Berlin. I knew within two weeks that if there was anything I could do to stay here, I would. And I mean, the lifestyle, the friends that you had, the Berliners, just everything fell into a place that I wanted to be. When I decided to leave the military, I had my steady girlfriend, and we had a son. So that kind of cemented my decision to just stay here. The only thing that I had to think about was gaining employment, but I’m a hustler.

Tell me about the party scene in former East Berlin after the wall came down. A lot of the residents left, right?
You’ve got younger people who were moving in from these small towns in West Germany, leaving their parents’ house coming to Berlin to study and just squatting in houses that had no owner in them, in apartments that had no tenants. 

Nobody knew them in West Berlin, so they weren't making the door test. A lot of them weren’t being let into certain clubs. You had the regular guests, and then these new people tried to come in, and nobody thought that they were cool at the time. So these people got pissed off, and were like, “Well, we're going to start doing our own parties.” And they had lots of space, lots of time. They were creative. That's where you got Tresor, you got E-Werk, you were getting all these crazy clubs.


I got the request to do a place called Mitte Bar – this was ‘95 and they were looking for door staff. I said, “Okay, well, I guess I can do this. It's something I've done in the past.” I was looking for another side job, so I jumped on. From that point on, it just kept going.

Smiley Baldwin outside a club

Smiley Baldwin outside a club. Photo: courtesy of Desperados

When you first started out working door security, how did you hit upon your “smiley” USP?
I said, “Well, what's going to be my product? … Well, I'll just do the exact opposite of what the standard door staff is known for. He's being gruff, and I just won’t be gruff; I'll change my tone and I'll be respectful. He has a hard face and hard body language; I'll soften my body language up and I’ll give people a nice smile.” So I just consciously changed the whole picture of what a bouncer at that time represented. It's really simple. I know some people think I'm a softy. I mean, there are a lot of people that don't agree with the way I do doors. I never really get into it with them. I say, “Well, I just let my success speak for itself.”

What kind of vibe of person do you want in your club? 
The club owners are the ones who give us the picture. Everybody wants the fashion crowd. Everybody wants the gay crowd. Everybody wants, you know, people who are nonviolent, or who just don't have that type of body language like, “If you step on my shoes, I'm gonna pop off on you.” We just go about doing that in such a way that it's nicely done. For me, it's really important that when we say no, we say no as kindly as we can.


I've met people in a line and I pull them to the side and said, “Dude, I can't let you into this club. It's not going to work.” And then they go, “Well, I just saw this DJ at a festival two months ago. I knew they were going to be in Berlin on this evening and I bought my ticket shortly after that, to come to this club.” I mean, that's the kind of person you want in a club. And even though my first impression was they didn't fit, I had to just take a step back, look at this music lover, and change my mind.  

Or I've done stuff like pull somebody to the side and say, “Sorry, it's not possible tonight, so I'm not sure that I can help you.” But what I did was, I looked at them, I saw the type of person they were and I asked them, “How long are you going to be in Berlin?” They told me and I put them on a guest list for the event that I was going to be doing two days later. I'll just place the people where they need to be. It's about getting that party going, which doesn't say that I'm 100 percent right. It just says that I have a very short period of time to make a decision. It could be that I’ve made bad decisions, or I sent someone away that probably would have fit, or I let someone in that shouldn't have been in there. But generally, over the years, I think most people would agree who know me or who know my track record, that I've done the job.

I'm curious if you can ever tell if someone is a tourist dressed up as a Berliner?
Yes, I can. 

That's… crushing. 
I can tell the difference between somebody who is part of the scene and somebody who just went to H&M today and picked up an outfit. And even the conversation will be like, I’ll excuse myself, “Sorry, it's not possible for you to come in today.” And the answer will be, “Well, how do I have to dress?” That's the sure giveaway. It's not a costume party. It's you. You have to just be you. If you're you and you fit, you just fit. 

So let's talk about the research. Were you surprised by the data? Does it chime with your experiences in Berlin or not?
Desperados’ research found that 50 percent of partygoers don’t feel safe, and that 48 percent feel door staff can be intimidating. I can feel it and I can see it. I'm interested in improving club culture in general. Nobody ever asked bouncers their opinion. Nobody cares. So here I am able to give you my opinion on that subject, and I think Desperados hit on this thing because door staff are the first and the last face of the club. The first thing somebody sees when they go in, and the last thing somebody sees before they go home. Our guests shouldn't have to feel unsafe. And I'm talking about our guests being anyone from trans, gay, person of colour, FINTA [women, intersex, nonbinary trans and agender], any group that you want to put into it – they should feel safe going into any club culture door.

What is the future of nightlife in Berlin?
I see the whole of nightlife being driven by the same thing that always drove it: youth culture. You can be a millionaire, you can put up a nice club and get champagne and all that stuff. But nothing can beat a bunch of kids in a rave who are just letting it go. When you give them a positive nightlife clubbing experience, and you get the right people in there, you curate the right evening, the energy that produces is incredible.