On a recent Friday night on the streets of the city of Great Falls, Montana, there’s a deceptively cold stillness. The sidewalks are nearly empty, but the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge on the upper level of the O’Haire Motor Inn attracts the town’s nostalgia-thirsty drinkers like moths to a lantern. A time capsule of the 1960s tiki craze, the bar’s only window looks into the motel’s pool, casting an aquamarine glow over the yellow and blue vinyl chairs and thatched grass wallcoverings of the interior. Behind the glass, women in bikini tops and mermaid tails, their long hair floating in veils around them, swim, shimmy and flirt with bar goers on the other side of the glass. Every few minutes, they weave out of sight to gasp for air at the pool’s surface, returning with a smile or wielding a prop sword. In the booths around the bar, patrons sip short glasses of neat spirits or lean over straws in teal blue Fishbowls, Sip ‘n Dip’s signature drink comprised of 64 ounces of fruit juices and 10 shots of various kinds of rum.
But another light radiates from the opposite direction of the mermaids where a petite woman is seated behind the bar’s organ, eyes focused on the three tiers of keys in front of her. Pat Spoonheim, 86, better known as Piano Pat, has been serenading crowds at Sip ‘n Dip for the past 56 years with pop and country favorites for regulars and a growing swell of tourists alike. These days, her stints are more limited. For just a few hours, two nights a week, Piano Pat climbs the O’Haire Motor Inn stairs to her illuminated post as a crowd of eager newcomers and longtime fans fills the room from wall to wall.
Covering everything from classics from the songbook of Frank Sinatra to crowd favorites like “Sweet Caroline” and Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar,” Pat plays and sings with the kind of self-possessed confidence only a nightclub veteran can pull off. Her quiet but resolute voice streaming from her microphone is joined by scattered voices singing along with her and the occasional, “Yeah Piano Pat!” from a beaming 20-something in the crowd. In a feat few other bars can achieve, Sip ‘n Dip’s Thursday and Friday night clientele comprises a mix of young recruits from the nearby Air Force base, college students, cowboy-hatted regulars and tourists—some in town for a rodeo, others for the bar itself. Piano Pat unites them all in the search for an uncomplicated good time.
Raised in a small Montana town by the Canadian border where she began playing piano as a child, she moved 100 miles south to Great Falls, settling about 60 years ago, she recalls. In her 30s, recently divorced and with three children to support, she worked as a medical transcriptionist by day and at the piano bar by night. After 35 years, she retired from her job at the local clinic, but continued on as the Sip ‘n Dip’s resident entertainer.
From the time it was built in the 1960s, the bar was a favorite of locals and anyone who just happened to be passing through Great Falls, a small city of about 60,000 people, known for being home to a series of once-freely rushing waterfalls that now power hydroelectric dams. But ever since 2003, when GQ Magazine named it one of the world’s best bars, the offbeat destination, easy to miss from the street, has gained international attention. Along with it, the pianist keeping the bar aglow has become a star in her own right.
Across Montana, any mention of Sip ‘n Dip is followed by a memory of Piano Pat. During her sets, people stand to take her picture, sometimes trickling over to ask for a photo together as she takes a break from playing in a seat by the door. In the O’Haire Motel lobby, one can buy Sip ‘n Dip merchandise emblazoned with the words “Home of the Legendary Piano Pat” or pick up a “I <3 Piano Pat” button. The mother of three, grandmother of five, and great grandmother of two, bewildered as she is by it, finds gratitude in her fame.
By telephone, Piano Pat shared her take on her unexpected, musical notoriety and what keeps her playing music for the mermaids.
How did you get your start playing piano?
My mother started me when I was a little kid. I took piano lessons and classical music for about 12 years and all my background was classical. I used to teach years ago, too. They [used to] have a dance every Saturday night in those small towns; a bunch of us got together and had a little orchestra and we played every Saturday night in a dance hall—I was only about 13 years old then.
When I came down here [to Great Falls], I played with orchestras for a long time. For the job at the Sip ‘n Dip, I came in because the guy that was playing in there wanted a two-week vacation. I had never played a piano bar in my life and I’ll tell you, I just sweat blood to come in as a single. I played there and then he never came back from his vacation. And I’ve been there ever since. When I started playing there, I’d go in at nine o’clock and play ’til two in the morning and I didn’t take a break, six nights a week. You get acclimated to it. Even my nights off, I don’t go to bed early. I never have.
What is your favorite song to play?
I like Elvis’s, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” I’m an Elvis freak. He was my age and so I like all his music.
What is your favorite drink to get at the Sip ‘n Dip after you’re done playing?
I ended up with diabetes, so I pretty much quit drinking, but if I have a drink it’s a Cosmopolitan.
How have you seen the bar change over the past 56 years?
The bar itself has hasn’t changed hardly at all. The pool was always built right in it. The decor hasn’t changed that much. The people? Yes.
Unfortunately, the people that I first really knew at the beginning, they’re pretty much all passed on. We have a younger crowd now coming in. The college kids found it and they started coming up there. We always had a very mixed crowd of ages, and they all had a good time. The young kids would come in and say, “Oh, man, I can’t believe I had such a good time. And I was sitting here with all these old people.”
When I was at the bar, people were chanting your name, so excited to see you.
It’s been going on for quite a while now. I was out for six months from an accident last year—I broke my shoulder and had to do a lot of physical therapy—and so I’m just kind of going back in again. I’ve just been working from two nights a week. I used to work four and five and six, so I’m plenty rusty, but the chanting I think comes from that I was gone so long and came back. I think that’s why I’m getting an overwhelming welcome.
What made you want to come back after your accident?
My kids wanted me to quit. I’m 86 and I’m just determined. I’m so used to all my life playing piano. It’s been a good spot and people have been so good to me. You just don’t find a job like that very often. I just have a desire, something inside me that said I can do it again. I guess it’s just bullheadedness.
What do you think of your fame?
I think it’s a matter of longevity, being there so long that brought it. I just kept playing and then the next thing I knew, they were writing articles about me and coming in for interviews. It just happened and I wasn’t expecting it at all.
How much longer will you be performing at the Sip ‘n Dip?
The big question. I don’t know. As long as I feel half good. I’m used to nightlife and just sitting home all the time every night, I think I’ll just kind of fade away. So I’m trying to get out there. I know so many people when I go to work, it’s kind of my social life. If I get too tired and think I can’t handle it, I’ll give up. But I just can’t quite do it right now.