KNIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: Mark Hall-Patton wages battle for truth, facts and history

Clark County Museum Administrator Mark Hall-Patton in the train station exhibit at the museum in June. Mark Damon/Las Vegas News Bureau

So many people-recognize-me-in-the-damndest-places stories. And we do mean many.

Pluck one out of the I-can’t-believe-that-a-museum-director-is-a-celebrity file of anecdotes from Mark Hall-Patton, the Pawn Stars historical expert (that’s the celebrity part) and head honcho of the Clark County Museum system (that’s the Average Egg-headed Joe part).

“In Sacramento, eight years ago, I was going through the airport security line and this TSA agent pulled me out of the line to do a full-body pat-down,” Hall-Patton recalls. “As he’s patting me down, he’s saying, ‘So what’s it like to be on the show?’ I’m thinking, I’m happy to talk with you about the show, but do your hands have to be there?”

Cue the throaty guffaws from the hit show’s “Beard of Knowledge” and “rock star museum curator” — both monikers bestowed by Rick Harrison, the show’s prime Pawn-ographer — whose library-level brain is a deep storage locker of how-did-he-know-that? facts. And yes: Facts matter.

No one stands up for them better than this man. On camera for the History Channel series, he relies on them whether authenticating a 19th century weapon, an antique hay harpoon or a Soviet-era ICBM launch key (seriously). Off-camera, facts are his mission, educating the public via exhibits at the three fonts of history he oversees: the Searchlight History Museum, the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum at McCarran International Airport, and his home base, the Clark County Museum, now celebrating its 50th anniversary.

“There is a problem when we start arguing the facts,” says Hall-Patton, his fierce intelligence beaming from beneath the wide-brimmed, Amish-style hats he favors, and behind a contender for pop culture’s bushiest beard, in a league with Duck Dynasty and ZZ Top. You can trace his museum mania back to his childhood, when 8-year-old Mark concocted museum displays at home, expounding on paintings and old books to his brother and sister.

Now, with around 20,000 history and research books strewn around his home, and between 30,000 and 40,000 more stacked at the museum — plus all the museum-world contacts he’s cultivated over the years and regularly consults — calling him a mere researcher is akin to calling the Serengeti a picnic spot.

“I do all my own research. I’ve had people say, ‘We don’t believe you.’ That’s fine. You don’t need facts for belief. I’m just telling you what I know. But I will not talk down on camera. If you don’t know the words I’m using, look them up. My task is to educate. Don’t tell me everyone is a fourth-grader and that’s all they understand. If that’s true, then I’m going to help them become a fifth-grader.”

Gratifyingly, this man who is a fact’s best friend — via 174 Pawn Stars appearances since 2009, and offshoot cameos on 14 other series including Hoarders, American Restoration and United Stuff of America — has become an icon of intelligence and iron-clad truth-telling in an era when that concept has seemingly become malleable. And that celebrity leaves him amusingly exasperated.

“When my wife (UNLV professor/anthropologist/sociologist Dr. Colleen Hall-Patton) and I went to Ireland, we went to Passport Control. The guy at the window looked up and said, ‘Hello Mark.’” Oh, and his euros were worthless at local pubs. Emerald Isle fans kept buying him drinks.

Such is the surreal life of the cuddliest history maven on television.

Mark Hall-Patton oversees the Clark County Museum, the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum, and the Searchlight History Museum. Mark Damon/Las Vegas News Bureau

“I’ve become this person that everybody wants to come up to, it’s bizarre, I’m just a museum director,” Hall-Patton says, though the way he reels off these stories like raffle tickets, you could make the case that he’s more flattered than frustrated. “People say, ‘You could shave the beard.’ But I’ve had the beard for 41 years. Or, ‘You could change the hat.’ I’ve worn these for 35 years. It’s not a persona or something I did for the show. It’s just me.”

Yet you can listen to him weave his celebrity-under-siege stories for endless hours, so warm and charming is his storytelling effervescence, rife with wit and self-effacing quips.  “I am a museologist first and foremost. I just happen to be one who has no shame on camera,” he says.

We wouldn’t call him shameless. Just genuinely encyclopedic. Mind-bogglingly so. Say, when Harrison summons him to confirm or debunk the claim that an engraved, Civil War-era pistol belonged to an African-American union officer. “This is an incredible piece, an incredible find!” he enthuses on camera, offering a detailed history of how a black man from slave-owning Louisiana in the Confederacy wound up with a Union commission. With his stamp of authentication, the pistol nets its owner a cool $6,000 from an initially-skeptical-but-now-convinced Harrison.

Beyond earning happy pawn shop customers a few bucks, Hall-Patton and Pawn Stars have also been a Las Vegas tourism boon. Early on in his Pawn Stars run, attendance at the outta-the-way Clark County Museum on South Boulder Highway in Henderson rocketed up 70 percent, he says. Though it’s since “flattened out,” the imprint of the series – now seen in 151 countries and translated into 32 languages – is permanent, helping to draw visitors from around the world. (Acknowledging his small-screen fame, the museum erected a cardboard cutout of Hall-Patton so visitors can snap pictures with “him” even when he’s not around.)

“There is an unofficial route that fans take,” Hall-Patton says. “I will spend an hour at the pawn shop on the weekends signing autographs. I will have a line of 200 people, and a number of them say, ‘We just got to town and we took a cab right here.’ They flew into Las Vegas and their first stop is a pawn shop? Or we get couples who just got married, still in their wedding outfits and they came to a pawn shop – this is not a good start!”

Fans clamoring for his autograph still stumps him, particularly when he discovered that one of his sold for $109 on eBay. “I’m still alive!” he exclaims. “I don’t charge. Here, have one!” Even Clark County has taken advantage of his celebrity. “Parks and Rec (department) has used me to get conferences here. I will do that, I like living here. And it is saying to the world that we are a community, that we are real people with real lives.”

Having previously overseen the San Luis Obispo County Historical Museum in California before relocating here in 1993, Hall-Patton has written two books and more than 400 published articles, produced nearly 50 local history videos, served two terms as president of the Nevada Museums Association, and even appeared in a “bad science fiction movie” – 2016’s gay superhero flick, Surge of Power: Revenge of the Sequel.

Despite all the hullabaloo that surrounds him, it’s the museum gig that grounds and centers Hall-Patton. “I accept the celebrity that has happened. It would be foolish of me to say otherwise. But I have worked very hard to never allow that to supersede who I actually am and what it is I do,” he says.

“The show has allowed me a bully pulpit where I can talk history, where I can say, ‘History is cool, history is fun, it’s not boring. You don’t have to remember the names and dates – that’s why they pay me. But history is about us, it’s about people.’”

Amid the onslaught of 21st century technology, virtual reality and nearly the entire world being electronically retrievable on a smartphone or an iPad, Hall-Patton says he’s noticed that children coming to the museum crave real things they can see and touch. “I am amazed when I hear a parent and child talking when they walk through,” he says. “The child will say, ‘What is that?’ and the parent will say, ‘I had one of those when I was your age.’ They get the fact that people lived differently in different eras.”

With a tinge of pride, he also notes that his high profile has provided a kind of “geek inspiration” to the potential next generation of museum aficionados. “I’ve had people tell me they went into museum work and history after seeing me,” he says. “If I can present who and what I am in a positive way, then you can say you know all this stuff and still be a normal person.”

One who, fortunately, keeps his sense of humor and a realistic awareness of himself. “My wife has her Ph.D., she’s the smart one in the family,” he says. “Think what it’s like for my wife to have somebody walk up and say, ‘What’s it like to be married to someone who’s so smart?’ She’s like, ‘Um, I love him, but I don’t think so!’”

Hopefully, the missus also doesn’t mind women asking if they can run their fingers through his flowing facial growth, cooing over its softness. Has Mark Hall-Patton become … a sex symbol to women? “I hope my wife is among them!”

Why Mark – you sexy, fact-loving, history-embracing thang!

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by Steve Bornfeld/Las Vegas Newswire

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