Yellow Brick Road to Oklahoma II

(Continued from the previous issue)

By Jirair Tutunjian, Toronto, 1 December 2014

Aramais Arutunoff, the Armenian inventor of oil extracting equipment, had a daughter and two sons. Anait (aka Anne, Anna, born in 1922 in Europe) and Anatoly (Toly, born in 1937) continued their father’s tradition as celebrities. While Arutunoff Sr.’s fame was confined to Oklahoma and the oil industry, his offspring’s fame was national.

Arutunoff, Bill Pryor and Tom Davis pose in front of the Lancia Zagato

Anna invented a holographic art medium called Holodeons which were collected by no less than Salvador Dali. She was one of the first artists to explore plastic resin as an art medium. In 1926 her creations made a three-year tour of the country. She was also one of the first artists to operate a pulse ruby laser.

(Continued from the previous issue)

By Jirair Tutunjian, Toronto, 1 December 2014

Aramais Arutunoff, the Armenian inventor of oil extracting equipment, had a daughter and two sons. Anait (aka Anne, Anna, born in 1922 in Europe) and Anatoly (Toly, born in 1937) continued their father’s tradition as celebrities. While Arutunoff Sr.’s fame was confined to Oklahoma and the oil industry, his offspring’s fame was national.

Arutunoff, Bill Pryor and Tom Davis pose in front of the Lancia Zagato

Anna invented a holographic art medium called Holodeons which were collected by no less than Salvador Dali. She was one of the first artists to explore plastic resin as an art medium. In 1926 her creations made a three-year tour of the country. She was also one of the first artists to operate a pulse ruby laser.

She received the coveted Lifetime Achievement Award at the Art and Photography Symposium. A few years before her death, she donated her highly specialized and costly equipment to educational institutions throughout the United States, including the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Anatoly followed a different path from that of his father and sister. While his family meant oil and modernist art, Toly became a celebrity in a medley of businesses and hobbies across the U.S. He also wrote (2009) a humorous autobiography titled “One Off: The Roads, The Races, The Automobiles of Toly Arutunoff”.

When Toly was a toddler his mother and father had made a bet as to what would be his first word, “mama” or “dada”. Instead, Toly stumped his parents when he uttered his first word: “CAR”. That word foreshadowed his life and career.

The son of an admired millionaire, Toly was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. The family spent the summers in Los Angeles, socializing with the elite, including film industry luminaries. Before buying their mansion on Mulholland Drive, they rented the former beach house of Harold Lloyd and later bought a mansion which his father sold to actor Vincent Price.

When Toly was 5-years-old, the family chauffeur would let him sit on his lap and steer the Cadillac limousine on Mulholland Drive. The teenage auto fanatic got his driver’s license at age 15. He started racing in earnest in his early twenties. Before that he had indulged in street drag racing and amateur competitions. During an illegal drag race in Tulsa he broke his back.

During his four-decade car racing career he owned or raced in dream cars …Ferrari, Porsche-Carrera GS, Alfa-Romeo Sprint Speciale, Morgan, Flavia Segato Lancias, Ascot, Corvette, and dozens of other fast cars in competitions all over the United States and Europe. In 1981 he won the President’s Cup of the Sports Car Clubs of America’s (SCCA) national championship. Along the way, he became a celebrity, a hero in the car racing subculture. A car collector extraordinaire.

As much as for his driving skill and knowledge of cars, fun-loving, easy-going Toly (nicknamed “Tulsa Toly”) became famous for his quick wit and sense of humor. He was a raconteur, bon vivant; some would say a dilettante with unwavering automotive enthusiasm. A journalist wrote: “James Thurber’s iconic Walter Mitty wanted to become Anatoly Arutunoff.” 

Continuing his stardust life, he produced two Hollywood movies: one of them, “Hollywood Express”, starred Sybil Danning.

Tying his hobby with business, he opened the first Ferrari dealership in Oklahoma and later SAAB, BMW, Volvo, Mazda, etc. He also founded the Hallet Motor Speedway.


Arutunoff's custom-built Lapin Aglie with Studebaker and Bristol concepts

Busy racing all over the map, he didn’t marry until two weeks before his 60th birthday. In an interview with a “Autoweek” publication, he talked about his family roots: “Well, my mother [Claudia] was Ukrainian and my father was Armenian, and there were portions of my mother’s family who didn’t think my father—being from Armenia—was a white person.”

The gilded life of Tulsa Toly almost came to a sudden end in February 2011. Driving through a snow storm to attend an SCCA convention in Las Vegas, he stopped to help a stranded motorist along Interstate 40 in Amarillo, Texas. While trying to move the driver from a snow bank, he was hit by another car which had skidded off the road. The car sped away. His legs were shattered. The accident made headlines across Oklahoma and the auto racing community. The doctors were able to save the left leg and amputated the other. Soon after, indefatigable Toly was moving around with the help of a robotic right leg. Typically, he joked about the artificial limb.   

Toly Arutunoff’s Mystery Fiberglass Sports Car

The Arutunoffs had come a long way from the Tbilisi. The itinerant Armenian-Ukrainian family had become American. They were members of the Oklahoma high society. While Arutunoff Sr. had helped extract petroleum from the bowels of the Earth, Arutunoff Jr. was a big user of that vital commodity. And within one generation the links with their roots had vanished in the Oklahoma oil fields. But the Arutunoff name and fame lives on in and around Bartlesville and Tulsa. Perhaps Armenians who live in or close to Oklahoma should invite Anatoly Aramais Arutunoff into the Armenian-American community. Effervescent Tulsa Toly might be interested in adding a new chapter to his colorful life.

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