Sip 'n Dip Lounge
A "mermaid" at the Sip 'n Dip
|Headquarters||Great Falls, Montana, United States|
|North Central Montana|
|Parent||O'Haire Motor Inn|
The Sip 'n Dip Lounge is a tiki bar in Great Falls, Montana opened in 1962, when Polynesian themes were popular, and it has survived to the present day with its tiki theme intact. Located inside a local motel that was considered modern and trendy at the time it was built, the Sip 'n Dip is known for having women dressed up as mermaids swimming underwater in an indoor swimming pool visible through a window in the bar. Decorated with a bamboo ceiling and a South Seas theme, the bar also features "Piano Pat" Sponheim, who has played piano there since 1963 and is noted for her unique "jazzy" style.
The mermaid concept was introduced in 1995, when there was a revival of the tiki fad, and it was the brainchild of the bar's current owner, who wanted to add a "fun factor". It became popular, particularly for Montana, a landlocked northern state where a tropical tiki theme is unexpected. Beginning in 2003, the bar began to gain prominence outside of Montana, when the magazine GQ listed the lounge in its list of the top 10 bars in the world, ranking it as the "#1 bar...worth flying for". The bar employs six women, who wear mermaid outfits designed and hand-made by the bar's manager, Sandra Johnson-Thares. Mermen were brought back in 2016, having previously appeared on occasion until 2004.
Celebrity patrons of the Sip 'n Dip have included Nick Nolte, star of The Deep, and Daryl Hannah, who reprised her portrayal of a mermaid in Splash by swimming in the pool while wearing a mermaid tail. Both actors signed the glass window, though their autographs were lost two years later when the window cracked, forcing the pool to be drained, repaired, and the double-paned glass replaced with a triple-paned version.
History and design
The establishment features a glass wall behind the bar looking into an indoor swimming pool where swimmers can be seen under water. It is located inside the O'Haire Motor Inn, which was built in 1962. The concept of a swimming pool designed so underwater swimmers can be viewed from inside the bar was original to the building, as the person who built the O'Haire had been inspired by a similar design he saw when visiting the Playboy Club in Chicago. When built in the 1960s, the O'Haire Motor Inn was considered "swank" and modern, and the tiki concept was popular, in part due to the then-recent admission of Hawaii to the United States as a state. The concept of a tropical theme was also viewed as a fun concept for Montana, a landlocked state with long, cold winters. Though tiki bars in general declined in popularity in the late 1970s and 1980s until the revival of the style in the 1990s, the Sip 'n Dip survived with few changes. During the 1990s, the idea of having mermaids swim in the pool during evening bar hours was the brainchild of the bar's general manager, Sandra Johnson-Thares and her mother, who wanted to add a "fun factor." It began with a single "mermaid" in the pool on New Year's Eve in 1995. Today, Johnson-Thares makes the mermaid costumes herself and said, "I never in my life believed the mermaid attraction would be such a big hit. People are fascinated with them, and it's not something you'd expect to see in Montana."
The bar features a bamboo ceiling, traditional cocktails, local Montana microbrews, and specialty drinks such as the "fish bowl," a 64 US fl oz (1.9 L) cocktail that features nine shots of different liquors. It also has an outdoor patio open during the summer, from June to September.
"Piano Pat" Sponheim plays piano four nights a week. Called "the heart of the Sip 'n Dip," Sponheim is an octogenarian and a great-grandmother. She performs what one reviewer described as "unusual covers" of songs, particularly those of Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, and Elvis Presley. She has a playing style called "jazzy" and a voice described variously as "lived-in", "soulful", and "husky." One of her most requested covers is "Sweet Caroline," where she often leads patrons in sing-alongs.
Sponheim was originally from Rudyard, Montana, where her family owned an auto supply store. She began playing the piano at age five, when her mother would drive her on an 80-mile (130 km) round trip to Havre to take classical piano lessons. By the age of 12, she was playing with adults in a dance band, earning $10 per night. She began singing as well as playing the piano during a time in her life when she lived in Billings, Montana. She was a 28-year-old divorced single mother of three when she started working as the Sip 'n Dip's piano player in 1963, taking the position as a second job in order to support her children. She simultaneously worked as a medical transcriptionist for 38 years before retiring from her day job in 2000. She celebrated 50 years of employment at the Sip 'n Dip in December 2013 and at that time she was featured on CBS Sunday Morning. She has released two albums, only for sale at the Sip 'n Dip, and though she takes requests, she refuses to play modern rock music. She continues to work because it is not only a job but also her social life, "It's a chance to get out of the house. I enjoy the lounge, and it keeps me going."
Mermaids and swimming pool
The bar employs six women part-time to wear mermaid costumes and swim in the pool five evenings a week. They are local women from all walks of life. The "mermaids" explain that it is fairly easy to stay afloat while wearing a mermaid tail, but the difficult part of the job is not floating; staying underwater as much as possible is necessary in order for patrons to see them through the window. Because they cannot use their legs in a traditional manner, they must work harder with their arms to swim. Mermen also swim in the pool. They were hired early on, but fell out of favor by about 2004. In 2016, they were brought back by popular demand, primarily working during the bar's Tuesday ladies' night.
The bar's most famous patrons appeared in 2002, when Daryl Hannah, Anthony Edwards and Nick Nolte dropped by while working on the movie Northfork, which was filmed in the Great Falls area. The actors stopped by the bar and both Nolte, who had starred in The Deep, and Hannah signed the glass window. Then Hannah, who had portrayed a mermaid in Splash, donned a mermaid tail and swam in the pool.
The Sip 'n Dip was called a "Polynesia on the Plains" in 2013 by CBS Sunday Morning. In 2003, the magazine GQ listed the lounge as one of the top 10 bars in the world, ranking it as the "#1 bar...worth flying for". Frommer's travel guide calls it "one of the kitschiest, wackiest, and flat-out coolest nightspots, not just in Montana, but in the entire West." In 2014, USA Today ranked the Sip 'n Dip as one of the 10 best tiki bars in the United States. In 2016, it came in second to the Club Moderne in Anaconda in a national contest by the National Trust for Historic Preservation for the title "America's Favorite Historic Bar".
The bar faced a major crisis in October 2004 when a crack developed in the glass wall between the bar and the pool, which could have resulted in 22,000 US gallons (83,000 L) of water emptying into the bar. The bar was open when the crack occurred and was noticed immediately. Staff of the O'Haire Inn immediately began draining the pool, which took four hours to complete. The fire department also kept their pumper truck standing by in case more rapid removal of water was needed. The old double-paned glass was replaced with triple-paned glass, and while the repairs were performed the pool area was also given a new rubber coating. The autographs of Nolte and Hannah were lost, as the bar's manager explained, "the crack went right through their signatures."
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