For 10 years, 'Pawn Stars' has given us a lesson in history and value, Vegas style

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By Greg Bates

Only four primetime shows in the history of television have lasted for more than 500 episodes. Both “Gunsmoke” and “Lassie” emerged from the black-and-white primordial soup of early TV to reach the historical milestone. First aired in 1955, “Gunsmoke” ran for 635 episodes while “Lassie,” starting in 1954, ran for 591 shows. “The Simpsons,” which started in 1989, has offered fans more than 660 episodes and counting.

The most recent series to reach 500 might surprise you.

The History Channel’s “Pawn Stars,” is cable’s longest-running show, having debuted in July of 2009. The reality TV show takes you inside the colorful world of the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop on the outskirts of Las Vegas run by the always entertaining Harrison family.

Logging that many episodes even surprises Rick Harrison, who co-owns the pawn shop and remains the face of the show, joined by his son, Corey, his son’s childhood friend, Austin “Chumlee” Russell, and a revolving cast of experts in a variety of fields.

“When I got this show, I was hoping for a season or two to help out business,” Harrison told Antique Trader in an interview at the National Sports Collectors Convention in August. “I never in my wildest dreams thought it would be one of the most popular shows in the history of television.”

“Pawn Stars” – which airs on the History Channel with new episodes running on Mondays – offers a simple premise: customers bring in items to Harrison’s shop – the only family-owned pawn shop in Las Vegas – and the Harrison team assesses the value, determining if something is worth purchasing. And if it is worth it, just how much the shop is willing to pay for it. There are a lot of take-it-or-leave-it moments in the show.

Of course, being reality TV, the show also follows the interpersonal conflicts amongst the cast.

 Rick Harrison. Image courtesy of HISTORY/Pawn Stars

Rick Harrison. Image courtesy of HISTORY/Pawn Stars

“We ham it up for television, but it’s basically pretty real,” said the 54-year-old Harrison. “I’ve known Chum since he was 12 years old, and I’ve been taking care of him ever since.”

In case Harrison and his staff ever need a second opinion on a piece, the show has about a dozen experts in various fields who come into the shop to verify and appraise what an item is worth.

“Before I had the show, people like that I would just call them or text them messages or email them pictures,” Harrison said. “On the show, they all like it and they’re all becoming famous. It’s good for their careers.”

The show and family suffered an emotional setback when the patriarch of the family, Richard Benjamin Harrison, also known as “The Old Man,” died in June 2018. The curmudgeonly patriarch of the “Pawn Stars” family gave the show a foundation routed in hard-earned wisdom.

“He was my hero and I was fortunate to get a very cool ‘Old Man’ as my dad,” Rick said at his father’s funeral. “That I got to share him with so many others and they got to see what a great family man he was is something I am grateful to have experienced with him.”

Although a significant loss, “Pawn Stars” autograph authenticator, Steve Grad, said the show remains highly successful because of the younger Harrison’s vast knowledge of just about everything.

“You know, they loved his dad on the show. But Corey, Chumlee, (Rick), they kind of all fit together,” said Grad, who is the principle authenticator at Beckett Authentication Company. “Then the eclectic people that come in and sell and then the goofball experts like me and Warwick (Stone) – I know a bunch of the guys – and Rebecca (Romney), they’re all my friends.

“I think they brought in a good mix of people to keep it interesting. People like history. They love the history behind these pieces. That guy, (Rick) can just read off the top of his head. It doesn’t matter if you say we’re talking about Ulysses S. Grant today, there it is. He doesn’t need to look anywhere; he’s just got it all sitting there.”

Everyone from big-time collectors to everyday people stop into the pawn shop to try and sell an item, which could be everything from a Picasso, to an original first-edition rare book to a Super Bowl ring.

 Corey Harrison. Image courtesy of HISTORY/Pawn Stars

Corey Harrison. Image courtesy of HISTORY/Pawn Stars

“We have jewelry, we have art, coins are really huge,” Harrison said. “We do a little bit of everything.”

Around 2,000-3,000 people daily come by the shop to check out the items, see the store and try to catch of glimpse of the Harrisons or Chumlee. The show, to say the least, appeals to a wide array of viewers.

“I think history lovers really enjoy what Rick brings to the table,” said Tracy Whittaker, CEO of Rick Harrison Productions and a “Pawn Stars” executive director. “He’s like the cool uncle that is teaching you a history lesson rather than your boring history teacher. He just has a great way of giving you some tidbits.”

Harrison knows the popularity of the show is largely based on him keeping viewers interested with witty stories and keen expertise.

“I make sure you laugh in every episode,” Harrison said. “In every scene there’s a little giggle or something like that. It makes it more fun – it’s not work if you’re laughing and you retain the knowledge better. It’s not like a motorcycle show where there’s only so many things you can do to a motorcycle. My show is truly different every single week.”

Harrison never knows what kind of items are going to come through his shop doors. Yet he knows what he’s after, and it better be unique, an item no one else in the world can find other than on his showroom floor.

“For me, something weird,” said Harrison with his patented laugh. “Because it’s not just sports here, there’s autographs and some other things. I really like autographs and really weird things like that. If I see an autograph from a really, really weird character, that’s what I like.”

Weird character as in?

“I don’t know, Mark Twain,” Harrison said. “Someone weird like that.”

When Grad gets a message from Harrison to come into the shop, he gets excited.

“We’ve done so many great pieces,” Grad said. “We’ve done some, too, that have kind of been like, ugh. But we’ve done some great stuff on the show. We did the Beatles’ first contract. How can you beat that? … In all the years I’ve been involved in this business, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

The seller was looking for $1.5 million, Grad recalls, and Grad gave Harrison his opinion on what it’s worth.

“I think I said $500,000 or $550,000,” Grad said. “We filmed that about seven years ago, my first year on the show. But that stands with me still as the coolest thing.”

When put on the spot, Harrison has a tough time pinpointing exact items that have blown him away over the years. However, he is quick to point out his love for books. He calls himself the nerd everyone sees on TV because of his geeked-out fascination with old, rare books.

“My favorite is always when someone buys a rare book at a yard sale for a $1 and ends up selling it for $5,000 on the show,” Whittaker said.

One book Harrison searched high and low for and found in 2018 was Elixir of Life by Donato d’Eremeta. The seller was asking $50,000 for the 1624 first edition, and Harrison worked him down to $35,000 before closing the deal.

Another high-priced book Harrison pulled the trigger on was the Dance of Dance, a version from 1547. Instructions of the Warre and Practise of Fortification was an intriguing book brought into the shop. First published in 1589, Harrison called in his book expert Rebecca Romney, who is the manager at Bauman Rare Books of Las Vegas. After rave reviews by the reliable Romney, Harrison worked the customer down to $8,600 to purchase the book.

 Austin "Chumlee" Russell. Image courtesy of HISTORY/Pawn Stars

Austin "Chumlee" Russell. Image courtesy of HISTORY/Pawn Stars

When a rare leaf from the Gutenberg Bible came in front of him, Harrison was in disbelief. According to the show, there are only 49 copies of the Gutenberg Bible known to exist today, and only 21 are complete. Harrison ended up purchasing the leaf for $47,000 and turning around and selling it for $68,000.

One item that sticks out in the mind of Whittaker while working on the show for the last five seasons is going to Mount Vernon to look at a suit owned by George Washington. The asking price was $3 million.

“Some of the things we’ve seen are insane,” Whittaker said. “Rick was able to touch one of George Washington’s sabers. Again, that’s worth about $12 million – not for sale, unfortunately. But he was actually able to negotiate on the suit; he just wasn’t able to buy it.”

The most Harrison has paid for an item came in Season 15 when he handed over $250,000 for a series of original illustrations from Maurice Sendak’s 1963 book, Where the Wild Things Are. To give you an idea of Rick’s bargaining skills, the seller had asked for $375,00. Harrison has called the Sendak classic “the greatest child’s book ever.”

Harrison’s most coveted finds over the years?

“I’m not wearing it now, but you’ll see me wear this bangle bracket that looks like nothing; it’s 1,200 years old,” Harrison said. “It’s all that crazy ‘Wow’ stuff that comes into the shop.”

With more than 500 episodes in the books and still going strong, “Pawn Stars” has restructured its approach slightly to keep it fresh. Harrison is now going out on the road more frequently.

“He’s actually looking for items now rather than the items coming right to the shop,” Whittaker said. “We’re kind of breaking the fourth wall as far as the show goes. Everyone knows that he’s famous at this point and everyone kind of understands that he’s a celebrity.”

Harrison enjoys the new format to get out and meet new people and find interesting and “weird” items.

“I love to teach people,” Harrison said. “It’s different every time and it’s not the same old, same old. It’s just fun to do.”

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‘The Old Man’ provided gruff wisdom, humor

By Kris Manty

 Richard 'Old Man' Harrison. Photo by Steve Snowden/Getty Images

Richard 'Old Man' Harrison. Photo by Steve Snowden/Getty Images

One of the most beloved stars of “Pawn Stars” was Richard Benjamin Harrison, co-owner and founder of the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop that he opened with his son, Rick, in 1989. He played an important and influential role until his death in 2018.

Known as “The Old Man,” Harrison could seem curmudgeonly. Maybe because he spoke with a gruff candor and had no time for idle chit-chat, and felt no one else should, either. In one episode, Chumlee talks about seeing a private jet in the backyard of Mr. Las Vegas, Wayne Newton. He says he would buy a G5 if he could and asks the Old Man where he’d take it if he had one.

“The lumberyard to buy some lumber and build a bridge,” the Old Man says.

“A bridge?” Chumlee asks, looking confused.

“Yeah, so that you guys can get over it and get back to work. You ain’t gonna buy no G-string, G5 or whatever you wanna call it. Now go back to work.”

Harrison added a lot of sharp wit and humor to the show and we would argue that many of the gems from his mouth were more valuable than anything that came through the doors of the pawn shop – even if we don’t know what some were supposed to mean.

Our favorites:

“I swear every day, you two are the laziest people I know and if you cleaned the molasses out of your britches, maybe we could make a dollar or two around this joint.”

“I’m a handsome person. I’m so money, Rick, I should live in the bank.”

“Quit skylarking.”

“I rode a caribou once. I can ride a horse.”

“Rick, I don’t want to hear it. You had a lady in here the other day that you could have talked down another couple thousand dollars, but you were just standing there smiling like a possum eating peach seeds.”

“Back in my day, if you had a problem, you got a bottle of Jack Daniels and dealt with it. These days, kids just wanna talk about feelings.”

The best advice Harrison gave Rick is advice we can all use: “Slow down, take a breath, don’t get so excited sometimes. Relax. It’ll all come together.”

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