Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: With one man’s dedication, ‘Pawn Stars’ is becoming a play

Art imitating art imitating life: Derek Stonebarger is bringing the Pawn Stars posse to the stage (partially in puppet form).
Bill Hughes

Owners closed the Atomic, Las Vegas’ oldest watering hole, Saturday night to make room for the Pawn Stars employee Christmas party. But the connection between the two businesses didn’t begin with a holiday bash.

It started earlier this year when Derek Stonebarger—a minority owner of the Atomic who has a 20-year background as a theater owner, film producer, film fest founder, actor, Emmy award winner and more—came up with the idea to write a play based on the characters in Pawn Stars.

The History Channel’s reality TV show, based on the antics at the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, is one of the most successful reality series on cable television. If you don’t know where the shop is, just drive down Las Vegas Boulevard north of Sahara any morning around 8 and you’ll see people lined up waiting to get inside.

Yeah, it’s weird, especially if you have lived Downtown long enough to view pawn shops with the same indifference as bail bonds or check-cashing joints. But the show hits a nerve because it melds history about “stuff”—and we all have stuff lying around that we think might be of value—and characters who appear sincere and engaging.

Pawn Shop Live!, written by Stonebarger and local playwright/director Troy Heard, begins before Pawn Stars took off and derives from the history of its characters, especially Rick Harrison (“Slick Garrison” in the play).

Opening January 21 at the Golden Nugget, the 4 p.m. show is likely the first stage production based on a reality TV show.

Art imitating art imitating life.

Stonebarger says he came up with the idea in 2011 when he opened Theatre 7. “I was seeing all these people lined up to get into the pawn shop,” he recalls. “I thought, there’s as many as 5,000 people in there every day; my goal was to get 100 a day, maybe twice a day.”

When he finally got around to auditioning actors in April, he got a call from the real Pawn Stars, who wanted to have a talk.

“We walked in, and the first thing they said they wanted to do was sue,” Stonebarger remembers, chuckling. “But Rick said, ‘Hey, it’s a parody, so they can do whatever they want.’”

Stonebarger and Heard read it to them. They liked it and asked about partnering on the project. That partnership is in the final stages of being inked, and one thing Harrison did was get them an audience with Golden Nugget executives. It’s also likely that after the play begins, the stars of the TV show will make appearances in the casino’s theater each week.

The stars also provided some rare background information for the production. Even though Stonebarger calls it a parody, it focuses on Rick Harrison and some of the struggles and stories in his real life.

“I learned about Rick putting ‘world famous’ on his shop because he just had this feeling,” Stonebarger says. “It turns out, it’s become the most famous pawn shop in the world.”

If you watch the show, you get the sense that Harrison is smart as a tack—even though he didn’t finish high school. Bedridden as a kid because he suffered from seizures, Stonebarger says, Harrison absorbed himself in books. Then he dropped out of school in the 10th grade because he started selling knock-off Gucci bags on the streets in Southern California, taking in some $2,000 per day.

“That’s why he’s so street smart, too,” Stonebarger adds.

It took Stonebarger some two years to get to the play, and it might never have happened had Heard not come on board. As Heard puts it: “It’s the most ridiculous idea in the world and the most brilliant at the same time.”

The play “won’t have the stink of art or theater on it,” Heard adds. “It’s sketch comedy. It’s MADtv sketch comedy. But it’s done well.”

And more is coming by way of Stonebarger. He’s tight-lipped about it, but sees this show as something tying together local theater, Downtown, art and so much more.

“I’ve got something else coming after this,” he says. “I have, like, 100 things I want to do, you know, and it just takes time to do it right. But they’re coming.”

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
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