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Sip 'n Dip brings tropics to Montana's heartland

For more than 50-years, the Sip 'n Dip Lounge has offered customers a taste of the tropics in Montana's heart land. In our Montana Moment, we meet Aquamarine the mermaid and Miss Pat, the piano player whose entertained patrons since 1963.
For more than 50-years, the Sip 'n Dip Lounge has offered customers a taste of the tropics in Montana's heart land. In our Montana Moment, we meet Aquamarine the mermaid and Miss Pat, the piano player whose entertained patrons since 1963.
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It's not what you would expect to find in Montana's heartland. But for more than 50 years, a tiki bar in Great Falls has been captivating customers from all over the world.

In our Montana Moment, we visit the Sip 'n Dip at the O'Haire Motor Inn.

Here on a Wednesday night, Piano Pat was entertaining patrons.

Aquamarine the mermaid welcomed the dinner crowd.

From the glassed-in pool over the bar, the mermaid blew kisses to a little girl.

"Oh," said the girl's mom. "She's so pretty. She's saying hi. Blow her a kiss."

The little girl cupped her hand over her chin, and blew a charming hello to the beautiful creature with a purple tail.

"Their faces will light up if you blow them kisses," said Aquamarine. "It's one of my favorite things to do."

But the mermaid's graceful moves in the water were enthralling kids and parents.

Camron Hern was at the bar making exotic drinks like Kiss of the Mermaid and the Drunken Monkey.

He'll keep you entertained.

"I've got a few jokes," he laughed. "It depends if you like dirty or clean."

"The Sip 'n Dip is a true, authentic 1960s tiki bar," said the O'Haire Inn's general manager, Sandi Thares.

With its tropical decor of thatched roofs, bamboo and soft lighting, the Sip 'n Dip has the atmosphere of a South Sea island, even on a winter night in Great Falls.

Thares' stepdad and his business partners bought the hotel with its Sip 'n Dip in 1968.

The motor inn opened in 1962.

It was in 1963, that Pat Sponheim came on as a fill-in for a piano player who went on vacation.

But he "left town and never came back," said Sponheim, "and so I stayed here."

She's been a popular fixture at the Sip ever since. At 80-plus years, Sponheim has no plans to retire.

Before the musician began her routine, she took time to talk to NBC Montana.

She's cut back on the number of nights she performs, but the entertainer packs them in on the evenings she plays.

"This is like my living room," she said. "It's more like my home. I'm just comfortable here."

Miss Pat, as Hern calls her, is a Rudyard native who has played piano since she was 12 years old.

"I played with a dance band," she said, "in dance halls all up and down the Hi-Line."

As a single mom with three kids, Sponheim had a day job for 35 years as a medical transcriptionist at the Great Falls Clinic.

"I also taught music," she said. "My love is Elvis."

Aquamarine the mermaid's real name is Kate Heryla. Her day job is as a student teacher at C.M. Russell High School in Great Falls, the same school she graduated from.

Later in the year, the young swimmer will finish her student teaching in New Zealand, before becoming a full-fledged teacher.

She certainly has an eye-popping resume. How many teachers can say they worked as a mermaid?

"My teacher is really impressed by it," said Heryla. " She's like, 'Oh, that's so cool.' It's a Great Falls thing."

"I'm curious," said a young man who was with friends eating dinner, "how one gets into the mermaiding business?"

Well, it's not easy.

"You have to audition," said Heryla, "which is surprisingly hard."

She swam competitively for a total of 11 years, both at CMR and with the local club team.

"But even with that," she said, "it still takes a lot of stamina."

"Our mermaids are in the water for up to four hours solid, swimming" said Thares. "It's hard work."

The colorful tails alone can weigh from 10 to 45 pounds.

"I make the tails myself," said Thares, of the elaborate creations. "They're unique to our mermaids."

The Sip 'n Dip mermaids used to be just a special New Year's Eve attraction.

"But now," Thares said, "we have them seven days a week if it's a brunch week."

"They're just fun," said Heryla of mermaids, "they're the amusing side to water."

The Sip 'n Dip is a destination spot for all occasions.

"We have a gal who comes in every year," said Hern. "I've seen her here twice now. She turned 100 in here and she came in for her 101st."

But there's no generation gap at the Sip. On the evening we visited there were all age groups.

"We get them from 80 to 21," said Sponheim. "Those kids are so good to me. I don't know if I've got a grandmother challenge for them or what," she laughed.

"She's a highlight of what we can achieve in our life," said Hern of Miss Pat. "We keep working at it we get somewhere."

"It's just been a good spot all the way around," said Sponheim. "I've met so many wonderful people."

"I have a blast (being a mermaid)," said Heryla. "It's one of my favorite jobs of all time."

Here at the Sip 'n Dip, it's a Montana Moment on a South Sea island in Great Falls.

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