By BROOKS BARNES
GREAT FALLS, Mont. — When a study recently found Great Falls the least gay-friendly city in Montana, one man wrote on a local news website, “Let’s keep it that way.”
Mermaids are totally tolerable, though.
Great Falls, home to 59,000 mostly conservative citizens, can be a soul-deadening place. Big-box stores and chain restaurants line the weary main drag. The primary employer is Malmstrom Air Force Base, which services nuclear missile silos. The wind chill has been known to hit 40 below.
But you can’t hold life back. It always breaks through — sometimes in unintentionally hilarious ways — even in the most unlikely places.
I don’t know how else to account for the Sip ‘n Dip, a kitsch-tastic tiki bar hidden inside the O’Haire Motor Inn here. To find this treasure, you walk past the stack of Western Ag Reporter newspapers in the lobby and climb a narrow set of carpeted stairs. There, swimming behind glass six nights a week on a rotating schedule, you will find 12 women dressed very convincingly as mermaids.
Truth be told, there are only nine at the moment. Three are out on maternity leave.
“I’m hiring,” said Sandra Johnson-Thares, the Sip ‘n Dip’s mer-manager. “Do you know anybody? I’m desperate. But they’ve got to be comfortable in a bikini top and a tail.”
The cavelike Sip ‘n Dip has two large windows that look directly into the O’Haire pool. In the daytime, you can spy on swimming motel guests. The pool closes around happy hour, and women in mermaid outfits, goggles and flowing wigs begin performing in pairs. They do flips, swivel their hips and blow bubbles, rising to the surface (which is out of view) every 20 seconds or so to take a breath.
Claudia, one of the mermaids, said the hardest part of the job is staying in character. “Toward the end of a four-hour shift, your mind can start to wander,” she said. “Stuff like, ‘Did I remember to turn the coffeepot off when I left the house?’” (Claudia would not tell me her last name, explaining that she has a conservative day job. “I don’t know how corporate would react if they knew I was moonlighting as a mermaid,” she said.)
Ms. Johnson-Thares, whose family owns the O’Haire, recently drew statewide media attention by pushing against the accepted view of masculinity in Montana: She advertised online for a merman — Tuesday night at the Sip ‘n Dip is ladies’ night — and the posting went viral, prompting responses from senior Montana politicians.
Tim Fox, the state’s attorney general, weighed in with, “Speedo is @ the dry cleaners.” Ryan Zinke, a former congressman who is now the interior secretary, replied, “I got you covered brother. You can borrow mine.”
As it happens, the mermaids alone do not make the Sip ‘n Dip the campiest cocktail lounge in the history of campy cocktail lounges. (Honorable mentions to the Red Fox Room in San Diego and the velvet-wallpapered Bryant’s in Milwaukee.) Adding to the atmosphere is an 85-year-old singer: “Piano Pat.”
Pat Spoonheim has been an institution at the Sip ‘n Dip since 1963. (The bar opened in 1962 and has the original Naugahyde to prove it.) She still arrives three nights a week with a towering hairdo. She applies a little lipstick, adjusts the Ace bandage on her wrist and sits down at an electric keyboard encircled by Christmas lights. Ms. Spoonheim can be a little cranky — she’s sick and tired of “Sweet Caroline,” she’ll have you know. But she will accommodate the occasional request. She describes her style as “jazzy.”
“We’re rockin’ and rollin’,” she was shout-singing when I dropped in over the summer. “It’s Great Falls! On good-Ole Friday night!”
Two macho-looking dudes in cowboy hats lifted their drinks (blue concoctions topped with umbrellas) and roared in unison: “We love you Piano Pat.” A guy wearing a T-shirt reading “Beer, Bacon, Guns & Freedom” turned away from the mermaids long enough to clap. A husky lady with the remnants of a home perm fervently tapped her fork on a platter of meatloaf.
Oh, didn’t I mention the menu?
Despite its landlocked location, the Sip ‘n Dip has tiki décor. Blowfish and glass buoys hang from a thatched ceiling. There are velvet paintings, fake ferns and seashell lights. Behind the Formica bar, pink light glows upward through stacks of cocktail glasses. But the food is pure home on the range. There is a full menu. For $15.95, you can enjoy the Hog Heaven (pulled pork, macaroni and cheese, bacon bits). That meatloaf will also set you back $15.95. It comes with potatoes and gravy.
“You couldn’t make this place up if you tried,” said Gayle Nafziger, a teacher from Carlinville, Ill., whom I encountered during my visit. She was on a summer road trip with some friends and the Sip ‘n Dip was one of their planned stops. “It’s like a bucket-list place,” Ms. Nafziger said.
She paused to fish an orange wedge out of her cocktail. Then Ms. Nafziger burst into wild applause as Piano Pat, having finished a rousing version of “Ring of Fire,” made a turn into “Piece of My Heart.”
Ms. Spoonheim, who recently retired from playing the organ at her church, appeared to be having trouble seeing the sheet music through her bifocals. But the crowd sang along with relish anyway: “Take it!”
For reasons that should by now be clear, the Sip ‘n Dip has become a must-visit for fans of Americana run amok — the wacky places where the human spirit gushes to the surface in an unexpected geyser. “These weird, little spots usually have a lot of heart, and I think that’s why people seek them out,” said Kenneth Smith, a founder of Roadside America, a state-by-state compilation of offbeat tourist attractions.
Along with the Sip ‘n Dip, Roadside America lists Montana charms like the Testy Festy, where bikers annually gather to eat fried bull testicles and men participate in a drunken who-has-the-biggest-undercarriage contest. (But there is nothing at all gay about this state. Got it?)
The mermaids were Ms. Johnson-Thares’s idea. By the mid-1990s, the Sip ‘n Dip was in steep decline. Locals still dropped in to hear Piano Pat. But newer motels had opened near the highway, and the O’Haire pool often sat empty, dispiritingly for Sip ‘n Dip patrons. One night in 1996, Ms. Johnson-Thares was sitting in one of the circular booths with her mother, and they started to brainstorm.
“I joked that we should hire some mermaids,” Ms. Johnson-Thares said. “The more drinks we had, the funnier it got.”
The first mermaids made their debut shortly afterward, with tails made from green tablecloths held in place by duct tape. The gimmick was an instant hit, prompting Ms. Johnson-Thares to start sewing more elaborate tails by hand, sometimes incorporating lace.
“It makes them foofier,” she said.
To make the pool look more like a lagoon, she added blue lights and faux seaweed, aquarium-style adornments inspired by a family vacation to Disneyland in California. (In fact, when she got home, Ms. Johnson-Thares wrote a letter to Disney asking for decorations from a submarine ride that had just been closed for refurbishment. “To my shock, the Disney people mailed me a box of their special seaweed,” she said.)
Ms. Johnson-Thares had been telling me all of this as we sat at the bar. As she finished, Piano Pat, perhaps reacting to the light scent of country-fried steak in the air, started warbling her version of “I Love This Bar,” a country song by Toby Keith.
“We got winners, and we got losers,” she sang. “Chain smokers and boozers. It ain’t too far. Come as you are. Mmm-hmm. I love this bar.”