Piano Pat: Passing of an Icon

Overhead photo of Piano Pat playing two keyboards at the Sip n Dip in Great Falls, Mont.

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By SUZANNE WARING

The piano keys are idle. The cover over the keyboard has been drawn shut. Having departed is the Montana icon, Patricia Sponheim, a.k.a. “Piano Pat,” who played the piano and organ at the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge in Great Falls, Mont., for more than a half century. She died on Tuesday, May 4, at her home.

She didn’t set out to be an icon. In fact, the first evening she played at the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge, she arrived as the substitute. The regular never showed up again, and Pat played on. She loved music and could play almost any song by memory.

Pat was a true Montanan, through and through. She was born in Havre, Mont., and raised on the Highline in Rudyard.

She started playing the piano at age 5. Through grade school, her mother drove her 80 miles round trip every week to take lessons from a classical pianist, regardless of the weather. By age 14, she started playing with a dance band along the Highline from Shelby to Havre.

Saturday afternoon, a pickup would drive up to her home, and she would get in and ride with a band member to a Grange Hall, where she and several men would play into the middle of the night. Later she asked her mother why she allowed her young daughter to go off with a bunch of men band members. Her mother said, “I knew them, and I trusted them.”

In 2006 Pat said during an interview with the Montana PBS television show, “Backroads of Montana,” that, when she got home after playing with the dance band, her fingers would be bleeding because the old pianos in the Grange Halls often had ivory missing on the keys.

Pat was valedictorian of her 1952 Rudyard High School class.

After a stopover in Billings, in 1961, she, her husband, and children moved to Great Falls where she began a 38-year career at the Great Falls Clinic as a medical transcriptionist. After a divorce in 1966, she was raising three children on her own.

In 1963 Pat started playing the piano at the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge Tuesday through Saturday, continuing until the start of the pandemic in February 2020. In the beginning she did this night work because she needed the money.

“She was the last thing we saw at night when we went to bed, and she was the first thing we saw in the morning,” said her daughter Jo Sponheim.

Pat usually went to work between seven and eight in the evening and played until midnight. She later said she lived on about four hours of sleep a night for years.

After her children were grown, she enjoyed the social aspect of going to the Sip ‘n Dip in the evening and playing the bar customers’ requests. During all those years, she drank ice water with lemons in it and always had cough drops handy. She was delighted when the bar went smoke free in 2009.

When Pat interviewed for a job one time in Billings, she told the proprietor that she could sing. That’s when she started singing in the deep voice that customers came to love.

During those years at the Sip ‘n Dip, Pat continued to play the same piano, but she wore out three organs and four keyboards. She had an organ and the piano set up perpendicular to each other, so she could swing around to use the other instrument or play both at the same time.

“Sweet Caroline” and “Margaritaville” were her most requested songs. Sometimes they were requested several times in an evening.

Pat also played the organ at her church on Sunday mornings.

“When she got older, we would send her home early on Saturday night, so she could get some rest before she played for church,” said Sandy Thares, manager of the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge.

Pat was a true grandmother to the staff, and that made the staff protective of her.

“On an occasion when a customer would become foul mouthed, an employee would sidle up to the person and say, ‘Would you talk that way around your grandmother? Well, I want you to know that you are talking that way around mine.’ And that would take care of it,” said Thares.

As Montana’s U. S. Representative, Greg Gianforte honored Pat with the Spirit of Montana award, thus her name became part of the Congressional record. He said that hearing Pat at the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge should be a definite stop for people visiting Montana.

In 2018, The television channel, Lifeline, featured her in a campaign highlighting a woman in every state called “Her America: 50 Women, 50 States.”

Thares has received 130 press requests since Pat’s death. A Taiwanese newspaper even ran a notice, indicating that her fan club was far and wide.

More than just Montanans will miss her. MSN

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