Swimming with Montana’s Magical Tiki Mermaids

Located inside a motel in Great Falls, Montana, the legendary Sip 'n Dip Lounge has become cowboy country’s premiere tiki bar, complete with swimming mermaids. Sarah Baird travels to the bar to play sea princess for a night.

sip n dip montana mermaid tiki bar

The assumption that Great Falls, Montana is an impermeable, frigid tundra during the month of January is mostly correct. Fenced in by gargantuan, snow-capped peaks, the town’s icy topography is more akin to a playground for abominable snow giants than warm-blooded humans.

For those in the know, though, there’s an exception. Located inside the retro-comfortable O’Haire Motor Inn, the legendary Sip ‘n Dip Lounge has become cowboy country’s premiere tiki bar—a middle-of-nowhere oddity featuring everything from swimming mermaids to a legendary octogenarian bar act known as “Piano Pat.”

Built in 1962, the O’Haire still retains the telltale, taupe-hued brick exterior and rectangular, split-level architecture that screams midcentury suburban chic. While initially famous for its cutting edge “whirly-gig” (read: helicopter) pad on top of the building, the motel’s most outstanding feature for half a century has been the Sip ‘n Dip. It is the motel bar to end all motel bars.

Inspired by a similar set-up in the Chicago Playboy mansion of the 1960s, the motel’s original owners decided to replicate the concept in their own bar after experiencing it firsthand. Today, a full wall of glass paneling behind the Sip ‘n Dip’s bar reveals an underwater world of (ladies clad as) mermaids who swim, twirl and blow kisses to bar patrons. The mermaids have become one of the bar’s strangest (and strongest) draws, making every person sipping a Mai Tai feel as if they’re on a mystical submarine.

My initial interest in the Sip ‘n Dip centered on its mint condition vintage tiki décor and completely unchanged aesthetic—from the rainbow bubble carpet and black velvet paintings, to sunshine-colored vinyl booths and thatched ceiling. When I arrived, though, I was lured in by the mermaids’ siren song.

“It’s so funny that people think our dumpy little bar is so neat,” said general manager Sandy Thares as she picked out my mermaid costume. “I guess you either come and you like it or you don’t. It’s like a time warp.”

“The last thing I want to do is take two days out of my week to sew a mermaid tail, but that’s part of the business,” said Thares, who has acted as a den mother for the watery queens for almost 20 years, hand-stitching every costume. “When the girls are hired, they’re retrofitted back into the older costumes and then eventually get their own. For their signature tail, I ask myself, ‘Are they foofy? Do they like lace or not?’ The tails match their personalities.”

Standing inside a wood-paneled office above the Sip ‘n Dip, I surveyed the small city of Great Falls while we rummaged through piles of bedazzled fabric underneath the watchful eye of an autographed Travis Tritt photograph. Earlier in the day, I had been granted official “one night only” permission to swim as a guest mermaid, and Sandy was busy searching for my ideal outfit.

“The last thing I want to do is take two days out of my week to sew a mermaid tail, but that’s part of the business,” said Thares, who has acted as a den mother for the watery queens for almost 20 years, hand-stitching every costume. “When the girls are hired, they’re retrofitted back into the older costumes and then eventually get their own. For their signature tail, I ask myself, ‘Are they foofy? Do they like lace or not?’ The tails match their personalities.”

My tail’s noir styling definitely positioned me as the most gothic of the mermaids. (Secretly, I had been hoping for a head-to-toe gold lamé treatment so I could call myself the “Liberace of the Water.”) Made out of pitch-black velvet and trimmed with blue-green seaweed frills and chainmail-like lace, the tail was matched with a dotted black bikini top and—to complete my fashionable monster look—a pair of bug-eyed goggles.

Snuggling into the handcrafted creation quickly revealed itself to be something of an ordeal. My newbie status ensured that I required an embarrassing amount of assistance to make sure all my pieces and parts were tucked away properly. Once secured, wearing the tail felt somewhere in between having both legs stuck into one side of a pair of pants and zipping oneself into an incredibly tight sleeping bag.

When the clock struck 9:30 p.m., I made my way to the pool for the day’s show. Lowering myself into the shallow end, away from the view of the bar, the senior mermaid, Tracy, glided over for a chat. While I moistened my tail, I received a laundry list of tips and tricks for mermaid success—and little bit of Great Falls gossip.

“During my divorce, my ex-husband called me the devil, so I had this tail made out of python fabric because of that,” she told me while adjusting her black Patti Smith-style wig. I nodded. Her fellow mermaid, Georgia, was already bobbing and weaving around in the water like a playful dolphin.

Sink or swim! and Keep your head above water! are phrases that I once tossed around lightly in relationship to both my professional and personal life. After being dropped in a pool with my legs glued together and asked to not only swim, but look great doing it, my vocabulary has become more selective.

There’s something phenomenally humbling about a bar full of people watching you flail around underwater like an inflatable fly guy at a car dealership. There is, it turns out, a perfect balance of arm motioning, hip swiveling and breath holding required to even begin to not look like a complete fool, much less an elegant sea princess.

The mermaids at the Sip ‘n Dip are a surreal kind of five-nights-a-week performance art in the most unexpected place, combining silent film-style acting and pure athleticism into a single, flipper-donning package. It’s also the spirit of tiki at its finest, bringing a level of kitsch and escapism that allows visiting cattle ranchers or business travelers to suspend reality for a drink or two.

After exiting the water and shedding my tail like a molting snake, I found myself back in my more natural habitat—the bar. Weary from swimming and glugging down my gargantuan “fish bowl” cocktail, the drink and Formica bar had almost fused together into a matching turquoise blur when a Stetson-wearing old man broke my trance.

“You weren’t bad for a first timer. I’ve always wondered what it was like back there being a mermaid,” he mused, then paused with a smirk. “You think they’d let an old guy like me be one?”

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