Travel

Live Mermaids Make This Montana Dive Bar One of Our Great National Treasures

Mythical mermaids and a legendary lounge singer, in the last place you'd expect.

Sip 'n Dip
Sip 'n Dip

Montana brings a lot of things to mind: dusty cowboys, grizzly bears, and outdoor adventure. The landlocked state is the last place you'd expect to see mermaids… but that’s exactly what you’ll find when you stop by the legendary Sip 'n Dip Lounge in Great Falls.

Built in 1962 as part of the retro O’Haire Motor Inn, the Sip ‘n Dip just might be the best bar in America you’ve never heard of. This colorful tiki haunt is where Big Sky Country meets Polynesian basement vibes. On almost any given night after 9 o’clock, mermaids swim and perform behind the bar, often accompanied by the vocal stylings of octogenarian lounge singer "Piano" Pat Sponheim.

I know what you’re thinking, but Great Falls isn't some hipsterfied town where kitsch blends into the nightscape. Known as "Electric City" due to its stout collection of dams and power plants, this is a hard-working ranching and hunting community located next to an Air Force base specializing in ballistic missile maintenance. That really ups the surreality factor when you enter the Sip ‘n Dip.

Sip ‘n Dip
Jeff Mangan

"I never really thought, moving to Montana, that I would be a mermaid," says Lauren Christenson, a native of suburban Chicago. 

Christenson is one of 11 mermaids currently employed at the legendary venue. During her four hour shift, she'll swim up to the large windows behind the bar (which shares a wall with the attached hotel’s 21,000-gallon swimming pool) and make gestures of encouragement to patrons as they tackle massive rum cocktails like the signature 52-ounce Fishbowl.

The mermaid gimmick is the brainchild of Sip ‘n Dip owner Sandra Thares, in 1996. "When I told my dad about the idea, he replied: ‘You will live to regret this, but it’s probably the best idea you’ve ever had.’"

The initial show wasn't exactly a high-production affair.

"I had a little housekeeper who said she was a pretty good swimmer," recalls Thares of their first mermaid show on New Year’s Eve ‘96. "So we bought a green plastic tablecloth and we literally duct taped it around her waist and ankles. She jumped in and flopped around for about two minutes and got out. And she was our very first mermaid."

Twenty-four years later, mermaids now can be seen six to seven nights a week. Thares custom-sews two to three tails for each mermaid, which can weigh anywhere between ten and 50 pounds when wet depending on how elaborate she gets with the layering.

Becoming a mermaid involves more than basic swimming skills. It requires an audition to gauge physical fitness and, naturally, a lot of personality. 

"She’s probably sang ‘Ring of Fire’ more than Johnny Cash ever did in his life."

"I always describe (being a mermaid) as being a hobby, a job, and a workout all in one," says mermaid Sarah "Saoirse" Corbin. "I’m pretty shy typically, so when I’m mermaiding I’m a lot more outgoing. I get to put on a wig and a tail and be a different person."
 
And while the Sip 'n Dip is an adults-only affair at night, the venue does offer a twice-monthly Sunday brunch when children get a chance to see the mermaids in action. 

"Growing up and loving mermaids, I just see the magic that they think is going on when kids come in and they see it for the first time," says Christensen, who daylights as a preschool teacher. "I just kind of live for that."

The Sip 'n Dip was an iconic establishment for years before the mermaids appeared, thanks to the omnipresent "Piano" Pat Sponheim. The headliner since 1964 or 1965 ("She can’t remember," Thares says), the 87-year-old resident lounge singer gives the bar its one-two punch of charming kitsch.
 
Piano Pat's known for her polka-styled, raspy-voiced renditions of classic tunes from artists like Elvis and Johnny Cash ("I think she’s probably sang ‘Ring of Fire’ more than Johnny Cash ever did in his life," Thares told me). She also does a mean, crowd-pleasing rendition of "Sweet Caroline," a song she will bust out exactly once per night, despite not actually liking it. Just don’t ask for any modern music. She doesn’t know it, and she doesn’t care to.

Pat, who plays for a few hours twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays, has become a Montana icon. Two years ago she won the "Spirit of Montana" award from the state's lone congressman. Even Yo-Yo Ma once sang a song with her, although Pat still remains perplexed by her late-life fame.

"If people stop and ask for her autograph, she’ll roll her eyes and ask why," says Thares. 

"She has told me that it’s what keeps her alive," says Thares. "It gives her something to come out and do and a purpose. She’s like our grandma and every single one of my staff members adores her as such. Piano Pat has been playing here longer than I’ve been alive. She demands respect."

Despite all the theatrics, the Sip 'n Dip's a simple place: some booths, a few stools, a smattering of bamboo and, as Thares puts it, "a whole bunch of tiki crap" such as velvet paintings, glass globes, puffer fish, and "stuff that people just bring to us from Hawaii vacations over the years."

Yet the place's reputation draws diverse clientele. Ranchers. Hunters. Hipsters. Cowboys. Businessmen. Grandparents. Flight attendants. College kids. Bachelorette parties. The occasional milkman convention. They all come to the Sip ‘n Dip to gather in a dim bar that could be any other well-worn tiki hang, were it not for the mythical aquatic creatures.

"It’s just a very eclectic mixture of folks," says Thares. "When they come in here, there’s always something to talk about." Topic one? Mermaids: the ultimate icebreaker.

“I don’t know anyone who’s survived two fishbowls.”

You might even see a familiar face in the tank. Legend has it, Splash star Daryl Hannah once donned a tail and hit the water while in town filming Northfork in 2002. And during a local fundraiser about three years ago, Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly became a merman.

"I put on the mermaid outfit and the little bow tie that Sandi gives people and I went in," Mayor Kelly told me. "And yes, I was sober."

The tank is also home to stories both heartwarming and salacious. Mermaid Corbin's husband, a former merman, proposed to her underwater before he went back into active duty military service. And then there's the tale of the newlyweds who decided to consummate their union in the pool, unaware that the whole bar could see through the window. When they entered the bar for a cool-down drink, they received a standing ovation.
 
These all seem like elements of a rowdy roadhouse, but the Sip is surprisingly laid back. Sure, the fishbowls might double as bear tranquilizers -- "I don’t know anyone who’s survived two of them," warns Mayor Kelly -- but people are here to hang out over drinks, maybe eat some prime rib, and, of course, see the mermaid show.

"We don’t try to be anything we’re not," says Thares. "It’s just a quirky, weird kind of place."

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Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile