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Lilli Solomon and Pistol Pete

The Lady Behind the Mask

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Media Contact: Mack Burke | Associate Director of Media Relations | 405-744-5540 |

Sometimes in life two forces of nature collide. This is a story about a mascot, his big head and the little lady who wasn't afraid to keep him in check and looking good. 

Lillie Solomon is a renaissance woman at 85 years young. As a milliner, costumer, puppeteer and theater owner, she's kept busy through the years with a creative mind, channeling her imagination into inventing tangible, magical things. Nearly 40 years ago, her talents crossed paths with the Oklahoma State University mascot, leading to a labor of love unlikely to fall into just anyone's lap. 

Pistol Pete, based on the real life cowboy Frank B. Eaton, has been a part of Cowboy lore since 1923 when Eaton served as the marshal of the Armistice Day Parade. Eaton went on to represent the college as a goodwill ambassador until his death in 1958. Following Eaton's death, a papier-mache head was made and worn by various "Petes" in representation of the real Eaton as the official OSU mascot.

In the 1970s, Bob Johnson, a Disney Imagineer, created a Pistol Pete head and a spare. One came to the university and the other was used as a prop at vari­ous events, including a parade in Ireland. When Johnson retired, he contacted the university, and the spare head was donated to OSU. Those two heads have been in the Pistol Pete rotation ever since. 

Lillie Solomon
Lillie Solomon demonstrates her marionette creation, Repete.

In 1977, Michael Solomon was attend­ing OSU and befriended the late Rick Dillard who portrayed Pistol Pete at the time. Dillard mentioned some repairs were needed to the Pistol Pete heads — and Michael knew his mother, Lillie, was just the person for the job.

When Lillie wasn't busy costuming the Tulsa Ballet or making hats, she was building mari­onettes. She created numerous mascots for corporations including the Ice Man for the Tulsa Oilers, Wally Wordsworth for Bell Telephone's Literacy Program and Ozzie the Sea Otter for Digital Information Group, a children's literacy software company. She even designed mascots Bogey and Eagle for a Tulsa Pro/Am Golf Charity Tournament, who walked among the likes of the late Danny Thomas and Bob Hope. The Solomon garage was reserved as mom's workstation and it was used extensively. 

The first time Michael brought the Pete head home, Lillie immediately went to work lightening it. Her extensive work in theater (including costuming famous ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov) made her keenly aware of how things look from a distance. In order to see Pete's handsome face from the football field, he needed to be lightened. Without a workspace big enough for the heads, Lillie set them up on tables in the backyard next to the family pool. On that very first visit, Pete (or his head at least) nearly went for a swim. 

"Those heads are so heavy, that if they get away from you — you're in trouble. His head nearly ended up in the bottom of my swimming pool," Lillie said. 

Pete did not go for a swim that day, but he did get a complete overhaul. From repairing chinks in fiberglass to paint­ing the face to reducing his weight, Pete came away looking refreshed and feeling lighter. Clearly pleased with the results, the Pistol Petes continued to make pilgrim­ ages back to Lillie for renewal. As time passed, son Michael became more involved in the repairs and the project became a family affair. 

Pete was such a constant presence at the Solomon home that daughter Annette Solomon Shamas joked, "Pete's like my other brother. He's the third child in our family, and we're totally OK with that!" 

Lillie said, "I always tell people I'm Pistol Pete's mother. I'm just glad I didn't have to give birth to him." 

Like any good mother, Lillie had no problem telling the various Petes how to behave. 

"I'd tell them, don't get on a bicycle, don't get on a horse! Stay on your own two feet and keep your balance! Well, this one kid didn't listen and lost his balance on a bicycle and fell over. That head is so heavy that it can really tip you over!" she said. 

With the head weighing in at 45 pounds, it did indeed do some damage. The "bicycling Pete" ended up injuring his shoulder and wearing a neck brace for a long time afterward. Lillie relayed this story to the 2010 Pete, Derek Dillard, and as it turns out, the Pete in question was his dad. 

"I had chills when he said that was his father," she said. 

Pistol Pete has become one of the most recognizable mascots in college and professional sports. With such an iconic visage, one might think there was trepida­tion in altering the beloved mascot. Not so with the master puppeteer, merging the complex mind of an engineer with an artist's touch. 

Pistol Pete's repairs benefited from Lillie Solomon's experience building marionettes and managing her own puppet theater, Lilli Putt. In the 1980s Solomon created Repete, a marionette version of the Pistol pete Mascot.

After the Petes complained of neck pain, Lillie created shoulder pads. When they said it was too hot inside the heads, she drilled ventilation holes and installed miniature fans. If Pete was looking ragged, she replaced the hair with human locks bought from a beauty shop. And, if they  complained of limited vision, Lillie knew just the fix. 

"I was always concerned about the  children walking up to Pete," she says. "I thought there's no way for him to see them, and I don't want the little ones or Pete to get injured, so I took out my dremel tool and cut a hole in Pete's chin ... it gave him much more range of vision." 

Current Pistol Pete Taylor Collins agreed. 

"I use that particular vantage point all the time," he said. "Walking down stairs or seeing small children would be next to impossible without it." 

Through the years, repairs have included redesigns. 

"I was scared when I opened up his eyes in 2010. They asked me to make a kinder-looking Pete and I liked that. I never thought Pete should look vicious. Yes, he is strong, and yes, he's a rough old cowboy, but I always thought there should be a kindness co him," she said. "Opening up his eyes made him look kinder. I was happy with how they turned out, but it was a little nerve wracking when I was doing it." 

As the years went by, the window of time to perfect Pete narrowed. 

"In the early days, they really only used Pete at the football games. As time went on, he became more of a marketing cool for the university so the turnaround got shortened. In reality, they can't have the Petes gone for more than two weeks at a time," Solomon said. 

And if you have one Pete head, you have to have the other. 

"I always like to work on them together because as far as the public is concerned there's only one Pete. They have to look alike, and it's just so much easier if you have them side by side when you do repairs," she said. 

After a five-year hiatus, Lillie began repairs on Pete again during the summer and she couldn't be more thrilled. 

"When I see Pete on the field, I feel proud of my work," she said. "OSU is home to me. That's why I live here. I'd do anything for the university. After all, I do it for Pete's sake."

Story by: Holly Bergbower

Photos by: Michael Solomon and Gary Lawson

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