A Surprise Hit

“Pawn Stars,” the most popular show ever to air on The History Channel, has turned a family business into a gold mine.
| By Mervyn Rothstein | From Pierce Brosnan, May/June 2014
A Surprise Hit
Photo/A+E Networks /Joey L
Stepping out in Las Vegas are show stars Rick Harrison, fan favorite Austin “Chumlee” Russell, Corey “Big Hoss” Harrison and Richard Harrison, fondly known to viewers as “The Old Man.”

The man behind the glass counter is bald, bold and sturdy, wearing a black polo shirt with the words "World Famous Gold and Silver Pawn Shop Las Vegas" imprinted in white just beside his heart. Two long, parallel rows of glass cases rooted to the floor define the scene, each filled with what seems like mile after mile of glittering gold and silver jewelry or rare and shining coins. Wooden ceiling fans hang in line above, unmoving, their glass light fixtures illuminating the long and narrow room. Artwork of wildly different designs hangs on the walls, from paintings of Elvis and John Lennon to an etching by Rembrandt.

Two men carrying TV cameras stand ready to begin filming for an audience that is counted in the millions. The center aisle, usually filled with customers, has been emptied save for several extras—actual shoppers—supplied for background ambiance. The word is given to begin, the cameras roll, and someone with something to sell walks quickly toward the man in black. "How's it going, man?" says Rick Harrison, the man behind the counter. What does the visitor have for him today?

The seller takes out a tiny, dark shoe and a small, dirty white glove, one finger missing. They belonged, he claims, to Mrs. Tom Thumb, the wife of the roughly three-foot-tall little person who achieved international fame in the mid-19th century with circus magnate P.T. Barnum.

Harrison, in trademark fashion, provides a brief Barnum history—noting that if there was something Barnum "could make money off of, ethically or unethically, he did." He offers some facts about Tom Thumb, including that he worked for Barnum at age 5 and that he was 3 feet, 4 inches tall and about 70 pounds when he died. He asks the seller a key question: Is there any proof that the items are what they are? "Do you have any paperwork at all?"

It's a typical day at 713 South Las Vegas Boulevard, or at least that's the way it's been since July 2009, when the reality TV program "Pawn Stars" made its first appearance on the History Channel. In those five years, and more than 280 episodes, life has changed enormously for Harrison and his costars: his father, Richard "The Old Man" Harrison, Rick's son Corey (known as "Big Hoss"), and Austin "Chumlee" Russell, a store employee who has been Corey's friend since childhood. "Pawn Stars" is among the most popular and highly rated cable television programs, and the History Channel's No. 1 show of all time. Last year, it averaged 4.2 million viewers per premiere episode. It's the No. 3 nonfiction cable series, and the No. 1 cable series on Thursday nights. It is seen in more than 160 countries, and the show is so popular that 104 new episodes have been planned for 2014 delivery.

Pick up a copy of June's Cigar Aficionado, now on newsstands, to read the whole article.