Lexington, NC -- Long before he became "The Old Man" of "Pawn Stars" fame, he was known around Lexington as "Benny."
And while that was several decades ago, Richard Benjamin Harrison still has a soft spot for the town where he lived most of the first 17 years of his life.
"I had a very happy childhood," Harrison said. "I have many fond memories of Lexington. I want to get back there soon."
Harrison is star of "Pawn Stars," one of the most popular shows on cable television. He's patriarch of the family business, Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas. The reality series about the day-to-day operation of the business airs at 10 p.m. Mondays on The History Channel.
The show follows the interpersonal relationships involving Harrison; his son, Rick; grandson, "Big Hoss;" and the ever-droopy Chumlee as they dicker with customers about items they're trying to pawn or sell. A generous sprinkling of information about a variety of collectibles is included.
One reviewer described the show as a version of "Antiques Roadshow" hijacked by "American Chopper."
"Pawn Stars" has been one of The History Channel's most successful series almost from its start, consistently placing among the network's top-rated programs since debuting July 26, 2009. An episode broadcast Jan. 24 was watched by 7 million viewers, the most-watched telecast ever on The History Channel, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Harrison, who'll turn 70 in March, comes across in a telephone interview much as he appears on the show -- a little gruff, sure, but as lovable as an old teddy bear that someone brought into his shop to pawn. When he answered the phone and was asked how he was doing, Harrison replied, "Well, it's another day."
But he quickly warmed up, reminiscing about his years in Lexington and the unexpected twist that has turned him into a television celebrity.
Harrison said he and the show's other stars long thought a program about their shop had the potential to be a hit. But for four years, their attempts to sell the idea were rebuffed by cable stations and networks.
"Everybody said, 'Nobody's going to watch a show about a pawn shop,"' Harrison said. "We knew they would. If you watch much TV, 90 percent of reality shows are a bunch of junk. We knew we could do better."
They have, succeeding, Harrison admitted, better than either he or his sidekicks imagined.
Harrison said they've had people drop in at their store from destinations as distant as France, Italy and Australia, the tourists planning their trips to Las Vegas not for gambling or nightlife, but for the opportunity to meet the stars of "Pawn Stars."
"We're shown in 140 countries," Harrison said. "It's really taken off. We've got a lot of fans, now."
He said he receives 10 or 12 phone calls a day at the shop from people just wanting to speak to him. Almost always, they don't ask for Harrison by name, but request only to speak to "The Old Man."
He said he doesn't mean to be rude, but he rarely takes the calls.
"It's always, 'I love your show. How much is this worth? How much is that worth?"' Harrison said. "It's tiring. I don't have time for it."
Harrison said taping of the show is a drawn-out process. While filming, they'll shoot 10 hours a day, five days a week. The hope, Harrison said, is that for all that work, they'll find enough footage for about one-and-a-quarter shows.
Harrison said he and his co-workers are under contract for 26 episodes this season, six of which they've already filmed.
"Then we'll start negotiating for next season," he said.
Harrison was born in Danville, Va., and his family moved to Lexington when he was only 1. His father, also named Richard, was a handyman, performing work for a number of businesses and homeowners around town. Harrison's mother was Ruth.
Harrison said the last time he visited Lexington was in 2002 when he returned his father's body to town for burial. His father had been in declining health and had lived the last few years of his life with him in Las Vegas. Harrison's mother died several years before that.
Harrison remembers that he was raised on Peacock Avenue in Lexington, just off South Main Street. Asked if he remembers anyone from his childhood especially well, Harrison said Wayne Hill and his sister, Rhonda, were neighbors, and he had a good time playing with them.
He's heard from several former classmates since "Pawn Stars" became a hit, Harrison said.
He said he remembers fondly the barbecue that's produced in Lexington. It's a delicacy that can't be found in Las Vegas, Harrison said. He said he'd heard of Lexington's Barbecue Festival, held the fourth Saturday of October each year, and said he's going to try to attend this year.
Harrison left town in 1958, after his junior year at Lexington High School. He joined the Navy and served 20 years before retiring in the late '70s. He was stationed in San Diego at the time of his discharge and became involved in buying and selling real estate there immediately after ending his military career.
Things went well for a period before interest rates soared. Harrison lost everything in the economic downturn.
"I should have declared bankruptcy in '81, but I didn't," he said. "I lost a fortune."
Not long thereafter, Harrison moved to Las Vegas. He said his first stab at a business there was opening a second-hand shop. Harrison soon applied for and received his pawnbroker's license and opened his shop in Las Vegas in 1988 with a $10,000 investment.
"And I've been a pawnbroker ever since," he said.
The shop was doing well, Harrison said, even before "Pawn Stars" went into production.
About 15 minutes or so into the phone call, Harrison indicated it was time to go. It was getting late, he said, and a nap might be in his immediate future.
Harrison signed off with the signature line he offers so many of his customers who exit his shop after trying to sell or pawn an item.
"You have a good day, sir."
Story provided by Associated Press' Member Exchange via The Dispatch of Lexington