Hard Rock memorabilia curator has front row seat to music history

Warwick Stone, curator and creative consultant for Hard Rock Hotel, gives a tour of his studio at the Hard Rock Tuesday, June 21, 2011.

Hard Rock Curator: Warwick Stone

Elvis' Shooting Star jumpsuit on display at Hard Rock was worn by the artist on stage at Madison Square Garden on June 10, 1972. Launch slideshow »

Map of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino

Hard Rock Hotel & Casino

4455 Paradise Road, Las Vegas

In a studio squeezed between hotel rooms on the second floor of the Hard Rock Hotel, rock ’n’ roll memorabilia curator Warwick Stone is nipping and tucking at a dress on a small silver mannequin, preparing it to go on display.

It’s hardly a dress, actually. The British flag fashioned into an article of clothing looks more like a shirt for a child than a dress for former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. The singer wore the dress more than 15 years ago, but the item is still one of the most photographed and recognizable pieces in the Hard Rock’s extensive memorabilia collection, Stone says.

Not Jimi Hendrix’s guitars or Elvis’ loaded gun or Elton John’s sequined Los Angeles Dodgers uniform, but a dress from a former Spice Girl.

“I know I paid way too much for it,” Stone said of the Halliwell dress. “I just felt at the time that we had to have it. People remember it, and the British come and ask for it. We tried at the time to buy every piece of Spice Girl memorabilia because it was a study in merchandising.”

Stone looks the part of rock ’n’ roll curator with his necklace made of metal skulls, Levi’s and brightly colored shoes. Even his name — Warwick Stone — seems to scream rock ’n’ roll. He’s been purchasing and styling memorabilia for the Hard Rock brand since the first U.S. café opened in Los Angeles in 1982, before most of the Hard Rock Hotel’s customers were even born.

He’s helped to curate 2,000 pieces of rock-themed memorabilia at the resort, where he now works exclusively, and thousands more for Hard Rock International. But surprisingly, rock ’n’ roll hasn’t always been of the theme of Hard Rock brand.

When Hard Rock founders Peter Morton and Isaac Tigrett began to expand its London-based café in the 1980s, the restaurant originally had an Americana-themed gas pumps, Cadillacs and moose heads adorning the walls of the restaurant, Stone said.

The style made sense since Morton and Tigrett named their restaurant Hard Rock Café after the first side of the Doors “Morrison Hotel” album. It was bar in Los Angeles, frequented by miners and blue-collar workers, as Stone tells the story.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a really prevalent restaurant style in America to do these restaurants full of junk. I walked into a TGI Fridays and saw a canoe hanging from the ceiling and I thought, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ We were sort of just one of these places,” Stone said.

So he went to his first Sotheby’s auction in 1986 and came back with a 1975 Gibson Les Paul guitar owned by Pete Townshend, the legendary guitarist for the Who, for $1,100. The guitar, now worth close to $40,000, has become an icon as the signage for Las Vegas’ two Hard Rock Cafes. The original piece, and still one of Stone’s favorites, remains at the Hard Rock Hotel.

Like every good curator, Stone knows all the stories, rumors and scratches behind nearly all of Hard Rock’s major pieces. Inside a jacket given to the hotel by Slash, Stone knows there are two lighters, $7 in change and a receipt for the jacket from Leathers and Treasures in Los Angeles, across the street from where the rocker went to school.

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Jimmy Hendrix' black book shows Sammy Davis Jr. as one of the contacts. The book is on display at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

He knows Jimi Hendrix’s handwriting apart from the woman who wrote their numbers in his black book. Among the contacts include phone numbers for Sammy Davis Jr., Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker.

Stone also knows that Prince wears a boy’s size 10 and that almost all 1970s rockers coincidently wore a size 28 pants.

“What do you expect? They were surviving on amphetamines back then,” Stone says, holding out the waist a red bejeweled pair pants owned by Keith Richards.

What he’s not sure of is the pair of women’s underwear that sits on the floor in the Steven Tyler exhibit of costumes worn during a Madison Square Garden show. Tyler requested that they be put in the exhibit and Stone abided.

The Hard Rock curator rotates the exhibits on their popularity and relevance, such as the Tyler exhibit when he signed with “American Idol.”

He’s in the process of installing bar codes in all of the exhibits for guests to scan with their smartphones for more info on the exhibit and for Stone to track what’s popular.

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One of Michael Jackson's famous Swarovski-covered gloves on display at the Hard Rock. The glove was worn by Jackson during his 1996 HIStory tour and at his wedding to Debbie Rowe.

Stone also bases the exhibits on public perceptions of the musicians. Before Michael Jackson died in 2009, the hotel had only one piece from the late pop star in storage — a “Bad” era leather suit — that Stone quickly put on display hours after his death. People only thought of his legal troubles and sexual abuse allegations before his death, Stone said.

“Of course when someone dies, that all goes away,” he said.

A few days after Jackson’s death, Stone scooped up a Swarovski-covered gloves worn by Jackson during his 1996 HIStory tour and his wedding to Debbie Rowe for $50,000 from an Australian auctioneer. Months later, the glove Jackson wore when he premiered his trademark moonwalk dance in 1983 fetched $420,000. It was the deal of the decade for Stone.

Everything was hot after Jackson’s death. Stone remembers bidding on a suit worn by Jackson’s chimpanzee at an auction, but dropped out at $10,000.

“I thought ‘What the (expletive) am I doing?’ Then I am going to have to buy a stuffed monkey to put this thing on,” Stone said.

But some pieces at Hard Rock are timeless, such as the Elvis jumpsuit from his Las Vegas days. Stone purchased the gold-and-white one-piece suit at an auction in London in 1986 for 25,000 pounds, or $40,000. It’s now one of the priciest pieces of rock memorabilia in the hotel, valued at $300,000.

“Elvis has been working for me for the past 25 years,” Stone said. “He’s paid his off his 25,000 pounds.”