Doormen: The night club

By Alan Perrott

Alan Perrott talks to the men who keep guard at Auckland’s hottest nightclubs and bars and finds out it’s not just physical danger they have to contend with.

Scruff has been looking after bars and bands since the 1970s. Photo / Laura Tait Photography
Scruff has been looking after bars and bands since the 1970s. Photo / Laura Tait Photography

Our most notorious bouncer has terminal cancer, a fate he's facing with a stoic matter-of-factness. Whatever time he has left is being devoted to a photographic exhibition, concert and, hopefully, leaving a little something for his five kids, so there was some trepidation when Canvas invited him to share some old war stories.

He's never been one to do anything he didn't want to but when you're looking at the life and times of the modern bouncer, his tales are important because Scruff is the original model.

The 65-year-old has been machine-gunned, acid-bombed and beaten up. He's guarded multifloor venues solo, faced off with the highest and mightiest, and was the man to take the bullet if someone pulled a gun. And he's loved every minute he can remember - he was a drug addict for much of it and an enthusiastic user for the rest.

Yes, he'd have loved it all the more if he'd been one of the musicians needing his protection, but he's happy having been part of the scene and it's safe to say we won't be seeing his like again.

He got into security work by accident, and long after his real name, Peter Ralph, had been forgotten (he was Little Scruff to his older brother's Big Scruff), and even longer since he'd lost several fingers to a circular saw.

It was new territory - even into the 1970s many venues didn't have dedicated, professional staff looking after their doors; instead, it had been up to bar staff and whoever took the tickets at the door to look out for troublemakers.

Then someone got the idea of hiring the troublemakers. Thus Scruff got his first job at the multifloor De Brett's Hotel on Auckland's High St, only to find himself watching everything and everyone on his own. Punch first and ask questions later became his rule.

But, if the punters there could be difficult, they were damn near impossible at The Big S, in downtown Auckland. Come closing time, he'd have to drag out the fire hose to flush the remaining drunks towards the door.

Then when his mates, the band The La De Das, started having trouble with jealous husbands and boyfriends, he volunteered to put himself between them and their attackers.

"They were getting beaten up. They were cool, but they weren't tough guys. So I said I'd be the big, ugly bastard who'd take all that shit for them and I became their minder."

It wasn't the easiest way to make a living as he usually faced off against blokes far heavier than his then fighting weight of 95kg. What tipped the balance his way, Scruff says, was that he was a "psychopath".

"It wasn't that I thought I was bulletproof. Even I knew I wasn't. I just didn't care. I'd just tell them, 'Yeah, you might deal to me, we'll see. Just don't punch me in the nose. And no matter what happened, they wouldn't. It was really respectful."

Less respectful were the women; bouncers hate dealing with women. He'd always intervene when he saw a couple fighting, but all too often he'd confront the male and then get a bottle in the back of his head for his trouble. And, yes, the dents really are there.

Obviously, he was nothing like the burly, suited types who these days stand guard at clubs, pubs and live venues. Bouncers like Scruff dished out violence with a total disregard for consequence no matter what condition they were in.

"All the guys I worked with were heavy dudes, gangsters really. It was all weapons, booze and drugs. We were part of the hippie drug world and everyone went straight on to the heavy stuff."

If someone was giving Scruff a particularly hard time he'd invite them to join him in a ring for a fight. If they showed up and did well, he'd offer them a job - which could involve anything from door work to being a bodyguard or even working as a roadie. Scruff was a member of Sick Crew, who worked with some of the biggest acts to visit New Zealand.

The various roles naturally segued into each other.

On one tour, working with Billy T James, Scruff found himself front and centre between stage and audience after a threat had been made to shoot the performer mid-set. His only job was to take the bullet should one be fired.

Another time, he was relaxing in the rafters above a George Thorogood concert in Palmerston North when an urgent call came over his radio. A bloke built like a block of flats had climbed on stage: "Everyone was just looking at him, then back at me, then back at him."

His doorman instincts kicked in and he walked over and started talking. It turned out the guy only wanted an autograph, and he meekly returned to the crowd once Scruff promised him one.

"All those years taught me a lot about reading people very quickly, making a decision and following through straight away. Don't be aggressive, that'll start a fight. Sometimes the easiest solution was to offer them a joint."

But that was then. Things are rather different for the likes of 23-year-old Cameron Fannon, and not only because he and his colleagues now want to be called doormen.

Cameron Fannon says while the image may be more upmarket, the challenges today's bouncers face are the same. Photo / Dean Purcell

"Bouncer" sounds too punchy and harks back to the 1980s when the shaven-headed Sir Dorr ninjas created more havoc than they prevented at venues throughout Auckland.

Proper doormen started here in the late 80s and early 90s with people like Soane at The Box and Berlin's Riseti, names that became as well known as the clubs they worked for.

Fannon got his start last New Year's Eve after seeing the job advertised on TradeMe. He was a shoo-in with three years of mixed martial arts and one of jiu-jitsu behind him. All he had to do was apply to the Ministry of Justice for a Certificate of Approval. The doors are now supporting him through a degree in outdoor education.

Yet, despite his more polished image, some things have not changed since Scruff's day: you learn on the job and women remain a challenge. Figuring out how to grab the unruly Club Kong patrons without sparking a lawsuit is one thing, but Fannon will never get used to the women who think slipping a hand down the front of his trousers will stop them being ejected.

"I get groped a lot," he says joylessly.

His first night was spent in the venue's basement bar, a nice introduction for newbies as any troublemakers have to be escorted (if not carried) up four flights of stairs.

There was a good reason his employer, Mike Williams of Suitmen Security Services, made applicants prove they could carry a heavy bag.

But other than the need for strong thighs, one of Fannon's first lessons was in how swiftly trouble can kick off. When a group of celebrities arrived recently, a punter broke a bottle over the head of one of their bodyguards. In the seconds it took surprised bar staff to react, the bodyguard inflicted serious harm.

So, pre-emption is the key. If someone starts bristling, Fannon has learned to back off and get someone else involved. A new face usually defuses the situation. Abuse is something you have to deal with alone.

What is it about people who enjoy goading bouncers?

"We get it all the time," says Fannon. "'Why are you so serious? Come on give us a smile', that sort of thing. It's just tedious and you can see it coming. We can see how behaviour changes as people get drunker. Some get sloppy, others get aggressive and then they'll start having a go, and you know, I'm a non-violent type, I'm slow to anger, but once I'm there it's 'go time', you're out of there."

Which is why he rarely goes to the pub. He's not much of a drinker as it is but there's little joy in being around a whole new set of drunks in his free time. On the rare occasions he does go out he ends up slipping into "work mode" and talking to the guys on the door.

It's quieter there: there's no avoiding the music when he's working the club's floors, and there are only so many times anyone wants to hear the same set played in the same order.

All he can do is fade it out, keep moving and point his earplugged ear at the nearest speaker. As a result, he drives home in silence and the chances of hearing club beats coming from his room are slim to none.

Yet he enjoys his job and plans on doing it as long as he can. The money is good and he enjoys the teamwork aspect - you never second guess a colleague's decision, just follow their lead and do what's needed with every expectation they'll do the same for you.

The hours are pretty horrible, though, with 10pm to 4am shifts every Thursday and Friday. In summer, these can blow out to 9am, which means even more time dealing with groups of pissed up and pissed off young men who are too drunk to get into a bar and go in search of trouble elsewhere.

Guys like these are problems no one wants. A few weeks back, Henry Houia, doorman at Golden Dawn in Ponsonby for the past four years, was chatting with people in the queue outside the venue when he saw three men jump a passerby across the road. With no one else prepared to intervene, he barrelled into the carnage and not so gently ended proceedings, collecting an injury in the process. He wasn't surprised to find himself the lone ranger - he knows the rest of us are happy for bouncers to be the adults when trouble starts.

"No one prepares you for that first night," says Golden Dawn doorman Henry Houia. Photo / Dean Purcell

Which is why, whenever someone asks him what he does for a job, the 38-year-old says he's a babysitter. The aim is to shut down the conversation - old stereotypes persist - but he's only half-joking.

If any wannabe doormen ask his advice, he tells them to ignore everything they think they know about the job. Houia thought he knew it all when he started 12 years ago.

He was (and still is) a personal trainer with considerable boxing experience when a customer asked if he'd be interested in security work on the side. Given his own run-ins with bouncers, he thought that meant "act staunch and intimidate people".

His plan fell apart on his first night. He was sent to Space Bar, a hard house bar in Newmarket, where he spent eight hours being battered by the music and smiles.

"Yeah, they stuck me beside the speakers. I walked out thinking, 'Nope, I'm not doing that again, ever'. No one prepares you for that first night, but it did show me that the whole staunch thing, you just can't do that anymore. Everyone was mellow and chill, and I realised pretty fast that talking to people like a normal person goes a lot further."

So Houia prefers to be seen as a host, albeit one prepared to enforce the rules when necessary. It's meant that in his four years at Golden Dawn, he's met thousands of people - but that's still thousands short of the number who reckon they know the owners in their bid to get in the door.

"We get that line the most," says Houia. Other personal favourites are "I left my jacket/bag/boyfriend inside", "We supply the alcohol for this place", "I'm on Shortland Street" and the girls who thrust out their chests, wink, then try to glide past without saying a word.

Thankfully, trouble is as rare as originality, and working in Ponsonby is far more relaxed than at the Viaduct or on K Rd. But aggressive drunks, he says, are the same everywhere.

They think they're pulling Matrix moves when they can barely stand. That's when the babysitter drags them outside and calms them down before sending them on their way.

When the weather is especially bad he'd probably quite like to go with them. If he wasn't working the doors in the wee small hours, he'd much rather be sleeping.

Maybe Houia would have been an ideal sitter to keep Scruff in line? He could have done with one during his stint as enforcer for The Brat, a Nelson St club that embraced the hedonism of 80s Auckland. Much of Scruff's role was to deal to the suits who "forgot" to pay their booze bills and thump the men who thought nothing of using the bar as a toilet.

"But I felt sorry for all of them, really, putting up with me. I was more decadent than any of them. If I was pissed off with something, I'd break in and drink the bar dry. Then they'd find me laid out on the floor." Scruff recalls.

"But back then we worked hard for our money, bloody hard, but I came out of it with nothing. I drank it all. I tell you what, though. I'd love to do it again."

- NZ Herald

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