After tooling around the lodges of Glacier National Park, it was time press on to Great Falls, Montana to spend the night. There were plenty of vintage roadside motels to choose from, but I wanted to have a more thematic experience. Some fun. Some kitsch. Some tiki. Some mermaids.
I had visited the O'Haire Motor Inn the summer prior in 2016. In some respects, it's quite usual and expected—a family owned motel / restaurant / bar which opened in 1962, where elements have been added and subtracted over the many decades. As is the case with so many establishments built at midcentury which still exist in some form, evaluating the aesthetics is like peeling back the thin layers of an onion.
The Sip 'n Dip Lounge is a tiki bar on the second floor which opened along with the motel. I'm a big fan of 'Polynesian Pop,' which was a twentieth century cultural movement that included tiki bars, tiki supper clubs; tiki hotels, motels, apartments and even tiki bowling alleys and carwashes. Fueled by World War II servicemen returning from the South Seas with memories (and dreams) of exotic beaches, native women, and powerful drinks, tiki culture was further enhanced by Hawaii's statehood in 1959. The Sip 'n Dip's opening in 1962 was roughly at the apex of all those barrels of rum, all those inches of grass skirts, miles of bamboo, and acres of waterfalls.
Here the onion skinning reveals some of the original early 60s core at the base, a general coat of tackiness applied during the 1970s, and a Jimmy Buffet flair that smells very 80s. Although I have visited a wide variety of tiki bars all over the world to admire their thematic design, the Sip 'n Dip is definitely unique, this bizarre layer cake of style (and not all of it attractive).
The pieces that remain at the bottom are sometimes stunning, however. These large artworks flanking the main bar area are full of beautiful detail and just ooze the craftsmanship of the early 1960s.
Blown glass kelp forms with clamshells, seahorses, and starfish. I could easily imagine similar installations at any one of Morris Lapidus' Neo-baroque Miami Modern hotels such as The Fontainebleau.
The real draw of the Sip 'n Dip is its connection to and integration with the motel pool. Massive glass windows reveal swimmers below the waterline to bar patrons. In a 2013 interview with KULR-TV (Billings, Montana) general manager Sandra Johnson-Thares revealed the inspiration for this. "The windows and the lounge are original to the building. The gentleman who built the hotel had been to the Playboy Club in Chicago and saw the same window concept and decided he wanted to put it here in the hotel."
The pool itself is very cool, and we took a dip in it the next morning before departing. It's completely indoors, on the top level of the motel parking garage. The grid is large enough that the tile mural of a dancing hula girl and surfer have a charming 8-bit quality. As a result, I'm not certain of the age of this piece; something tells me it's a much later addition.
As various bits of signage around note, guests (and motel guests only) may swim for most of the day. That is, until the mermaids swim.
These mermaids only date back to 1996, when the attraction was jokingly thought up by general manager Sandra Johnson-Thares to add an extra draw to both the motel and the bar. As she told the New York Times in a piece from this past November, Sandra was having a drink with her mother. “I joked that we should hire some mermaids,” Ms. Johnson-Thares said. “The more drinks we had, the funnier it got.”
The timing was right. It's notable that the mid-1990s were a period of mid-century revival, including Rat Pack-era Vegas, swing dancing, lounge and exotica music, the 'bachelor pad' aesthetic, and also tiki cocktails and tiki bars. And let's not forget, it was only six years after Disney's The Little Mermaid was a box office smash.
During the summer, the mermaids usually only swim on the weekend, but fortunately this was 4th of July week, and hours were extended for the holiday. Unlike some Las Vegas casinos I've seen where mermaids stay in underwater aquariums for extended periods by using scuba gear, this is strictly a sip (of air) and dip (hold your breath) affair. The mermaids' elaborate (and I have to imagine, durable) costumes are handmade by general manager Sandra Johnson-Thares. Photos are encouraged, as long as you provide a tip in the giant snifter on the bar counter.
There are a number of art pieces and general mermaid iconography which reinforce the theme and central attraction. Were they all added after 1995? Or do some (or all) of them predate the show, and were perhaps the inspiration for the then-current owner's bright idea? I have no idea.
While slowly tackling a somewhat vile concoction called a "Fishbowl" (limited to one per customer, with good reason), my eyes panned around the Sip 'n Dip. Here I am in 2017, and, remarkably (in the middle of Montana!) it's still here.
The sad history of the Tiki bar in the United States is that the 1970s and 80s pretty much wiped them out. The era of disco and cocaine was followed by the wine cooler (and more cocaine). Rum cocktails were was out. And whatever thematic integrity there was to the Tiki bar design tradition was horribly eroded. As Sven A. Kirsten tells the tale in his seminal Book of Tiki, starting in the 70s the Polynesian style
was watered down further through a certain "Jimmy Buffetization"—the introduction of a generic tropical island theme with no definite identity Be it the Caribbean, Mexico, or Polynesia, everywhere was Margarita-ville. The popular TV show Fantasy Island [created] a world of white wicker colonial-style decor mixed with exotic plants. The fern bar replaced the Tiki bar.
The 1980s was the decade of destruction—the abolishment of Tiki and his culture. Either completely razed or renovated beyond recognition, Polynesian palaces disappeared without ever having been acknowledged as a unique facet of American pop culture. Purely an expression of a popular fad, they had always been denounced and ignored by the culture critics in their own time; now they represented merely an embarrassing lapse of taste. Unnoticed and without mourning, a whole tradition vanished.
But the Sip 'n Dip survived. Why is that? Chiefly, I think, is the location. Great Falls, Montana is a city of less than 60,000 people in one of the country's most sparsely populated states. It's a long way from anywhere, and novelties thrive in out of the way places. Not just for tourists (like myself) but also for locals. During both of my visits (July 2016 and July 2017) the bar was packed with regulars. People who come drink at the Sip 'n Dip on a weekly (or even nightly!) basis, not just to see the mermaids swim but to also hear the musical stylings of "Piano Pat" Spoonheim who has played at the bar four nights a week for over 50 years.
So it's unique, and it doesn't have much in the way of competition. What of the thematic design elements make the Sip 'n Dip enduring? It could have been drastically remodeled, or gutted completely, in just the manner Kirsten decries above. I think the answer is that the bar was able to weather the changes in popular trends over the decades by retaining the core Tiki theme and aesthetics, yet subtly (sometimes not quite as subtly) introduce further 'onion layers.' Much of the lighting—as well as the seating and carpeting—looks like it was installed in the 1970s.
These tacky 'disco lounge' elements allowed the Sip 'n Dip to ease into that era, and to coexist with the other clubs and bars of the times without seeming out of date. At this point, I could imagine some more "authentic" Tiki parts of the bar's original 1962 design being removed or downplayed. By the 1980s, the bar similarly absorbed the "Jimmy Buffetization" Kirsten notes; you can see the palm trees and neon flamingo beer neon signs and other signs of the era sprinkled throughout the Sip 'n Dip.
Finally to stay relevant in the 1990s when Tiki was making a comeback, the mermaids were added (and I imagine some of the excesses of the 70s and 80s were trimmed back). The bar had a new entertainment draw for the locals—who were always the core constituents—but now there is a new reason for younger Tiki revivalists to make the (admittedly, lengthy and arduous) journey to Great Falls. That's really key. As long as you can survive falling out of style in order to reemerge when a revival occurs, you've got a chance.
There is enough of the original design intact to please the tikiphiles, and also enough sitcom-level cheese to provide comfort and a sense of normalcy for boomers, seniors, and even frat boys. It's not a bar that squares would mock, it's a bar that hipsters can enjoy at an ironic distance, and it's a bar that tiki geeks can cross off their list. As one online reviewer put it:
This bar is not a polished artifice of certified Tiki aesthetics, like something designed by a Disney Imagineer. It has evolved organically over its history, accumulating encrustations from different eras. It still has tabletops of its pre-Tiki nautical theme. It has a big old organ in the middle of it. It has mermaids. It has VLTs off to the side. It's in a motel that leaves complimentary rubber duckies in the rooms. It has a regular clientele of hipster kids and weathered cowboys.
Because it has navigated over five decades of trends and styles, the Sip 'n Dip is neither relevant nor irrelevant. Isn't that the kind of permanence which all art aspires to?