An Oil Town’s Golden Idol

by Tony Beaulieu


When the Golden Driller was installed for the 1966 International Petroleum Exposition, Tulsa was “The Oil Capital of the World,” and the Golden Driller was Mid-Continental Supply Company’s gift to the city to commemorate the opening of the Tulsa Expo Center. It was a large undertaking in Tulsa history, part of the 354,000-square-foot event center, of which construction had been made possible through a $3.5 million bond passed by voters three years prior.

It took three cranes to erect the massive 76-foot, 43,500-pound plaster body of the Golden Driller. While the Driller has been guarding the entrance of Tulsa’s Expo Center (near 21st Street and Pittsburg Avenue) for decades, few Oklahomans are aware of the artist responsible for this roadside attraction. One of the few mentions of the Driller‘s designer—an eccentric, prolific artist from Greece named George “Grecco” Hondronastas—appeared in his obituary in 1979, but by then his most recognizable creation was falling into disrepair.

While serving during World War I, Hondronastas was bitten by a poisonous snake. He was fine, but the snake died. It was a story he loved to tell—he was proud of it, just like he was proud of becoming a U.S. citizen through his military service.

Being a U.S. citizen meant Hondronastas could pursue his artistic passion in the country he had called home for years. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago and later became a professor.

He came to Tulsa for the first time in 1953 to help design and build an early version of the Golden Driller—then known as The Roustabout. This version was constructed with papier-mâché and was considerably smaller than the later, permanent version. The Roustabout hung off the side of the oil derrick, rather than standing and resting his hand on it as the Golden Driller eventually would.

Hondronastas fell in love with the city of Tulsa and later moved his wife and son from Chicago to a duplex near Riverview Elementary School, just south of downtown.

When the time came to build the version of the Golden Driller that’s still standing today, Dallas Meade Pageantry was awarded the contract by Mid-Continental’s parent company, oil giant Kendavis Industries. Hondronastas worked with Dallas Meade, as he had before, to design the statue and lead its construction.

The Golden Driller was erected on April 8, 1966. It consists of a steel frame covered in plaster, painted gold, and supported by a concrete foundation.

After the Golden Driller’s unveiling, Hondronastas settled into Tulsa with his family. He primarily worked as a community artist, constructing props and backgrounds for nearby schools to use in plays and parade floats, and also creating promotional decorations for local businesses. He used one side of the duplex as his studio and would often give free lessons to Tulsa’s young artists.

Hondronastas was always proud of designing the Golden Driller, and would tell anyone he met, according to his son, Stamatis Hondronastas, who’s now 61 and lives in Moore, Oklahoma, where he is an assistant district supervisor for the Oklahoma City Office of Juvenile Affairs.

Stamatis recalls his father as an artist increasingly consumed by his work.

“Art was everything. Art was everything,” Stamatis said. “Not that he neglected my mom and I, but it was getting to that point.”

Stamatis still has a lot of his father’s work, but said some of his favorite paintings were given away.

He was no longer living at home when his father underwent surgery for lung cancer in 1978, but Stamatis still knew how much it affected his father’s art.

“After that surgery, he wasn’t—he still painted, but he didn’t paint with the same vigor and accuracy as he did before,” Stamatis said. “He was still good in the layman’s eye, but nothing like it was before.”

The elder Hondronastas died a year later.

That same year, in 1979, the Golden Driller got a makeover. After being orphaned by Mid-Continental (whose principals refused to pay for much-needed renovations), suffering years of harsh Oklahoma weather, and being vandalized by everything from shotgun pellets to arrows, the Driller earned the pity of a citizen’s group, which rallied to raise $65,000 for the statue’s restoration.

The remodel in 1979 was responsible for changing the words on the belt buckle from “Mid-Continental” to “Tulsa,” cementing the change in the statue’s ownership from Kendavis Industries to the City of Tulsa.

That remodel also rounded off much of the Driller’s originally angular features, and proposed giving him a shirt. But, the shirt idea was hampered after the organization in charge of the restoration was overwhelmed by phone calls from retired oil-field workers who wanted their symbol to remain an accurate representation of what working in the oil fields was like.

That was also the last year of the International Petroleum Expo in Tulsa—the city was no longer the boomtown it once was. In another city, the statue might have been torn down; its purpose had been served and the reason for its existence seemed gone for good. However, even though the oil-boom era of Tulsa was long dead, a new era for the Golden Driller as a symbol of Tulsa’s history was just beginning.

That same year, the Oklahoma State Senate named the Golden Driller the official state monument. The Driller was destined to outlive his creator.

Another renovation came in 1999, this time by KRMG 740-AM sports director Rick Couri as a stunt for a charity organization. The Driller was painted over in stucco-like material, which gave him the sandalwood color he is today. It’s close enough to gold to count, Couri said.

By that time, the Golden Driller had been accepted as an iconic landmark of Tulsa—a far cry from the days when he was ridiculed as ugly and regularly vandalized. Illustrative of this transition from hatred to reverence is the changing opinion of former Tulsa County Commissioner Lewis Harris. In 1983, Harris said the statue was an eyesore, and that he thought it should be removed. Then, by 1998, Harris’s stance on the Driller had softened considerably, and he stated on record that it was “a great statue. It’s one of those thing people like to take pictures of in Tulsa—like the ‘praying hands’ [statue at Oral Roberts University].”

In 1999, when an independent firm hired to suggest renovations to the Expo Center suggested moving Golden Driller to inside the fairgrounds, Harris rejected the idea; he asserted that moving the Golden Driller would be like moving the St. Louis Arch.

Even though he now holds a desk job, Stamatis Hondronastas inherited a lot of artistic talent from his father. Instead of painting and sculpture—the bread and butter of his father—Stamatis took a deep interest in photography.

I asked Stamatis if he took the photograph of the Golden Driller hanging in his office—an extreme low-angle shot taken through the base of the Driller’s derrick.

“My son and I were in a restaurant in Utica Square, and this lady had photographs on canvas all around the restaurant. And I told my son, ‘I love that picture,’” Stamatis said, referring to the photo. “Well, a couple years ago, on my birthday, that photo ended up in my living room.”

I pointed out that the photo was an intersection of his and his father’s art—combining Stamatis’ love of photography with his father’s most recognized work. “It’s a great angle,” Stamatis said. ”I wish I had taken it. I wish I had taken it.”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 22, November 15, 2014.