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UFOs, FDR, a Magic Room, Mermaids, and Sprites all Gather in Great Falls

July 30, 2021

At 11:25 a.m. on August 15, 1950, Nick Mariana, the GM of the Great Falls "Electrics" was inspecting the empty Legion Stadium when a bright flash caught his eye. Mariana later said he saw two bright silvery objects, rotating while flying over the city of Great Falls. Mariana ran to

At 11:25 a.m. on August 15, 1950, Nick Mariana, the GM of the Great Falls "Electrics" was inspecting the empty Legion Stadium when a bright flash caught his eye. Mariana later said he saw two bright silvery objects, rotating while flying over the city of Great Falls. Mariana ran to his car to retrieve his 16mm movie camera and filmed the unidentified flying objects for sixteen seconds. The film was one of the first ever taken of a UFO. The incident received widespread national publicity and is regarded as one of the first great UFO incidents in the United States.

Named for that historic moment in 1950, the Great Falls Voyagers still play in the old Legion Field, now known as Centene Stadium. Built in 1941 as part of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration infrastructure development plan that included the construction of ballparks throughout the country. Built from wood supported by steel beams, these parks generally featured a covered centerpiece grandstand with wooden bleacher seats and a small press box perched atop the central structure.

Though renovated over the years, Centene Stadium still incorporates the main 40’s era grandstand, giving the park a continuing connection to the storied history of baseball in Great Falls, while more recent additions have added fold-up seats, spacious party decks, a hot dog/sausage specialty stand and a new structure featuring nicely appointed group suites.

With pride, GM Scott Reasoner opened a non-descript door on the suite level to unveil a magical room, the Logan Hurlbert Hall of Fame, stuffed with 100 years of relics and memorabilia of Great Falls baseball history, featuring among many other kitschy items, uniforms, yearbooks, autographed balls and relics of historic affiliations with the Dodgers and Giants.

Concession stands are built-in under the grandstands in a narrow concourse as found in the classic ballparks of a bygone era, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. The offerings a basic ballpark staples, but down the third base line is the Orbit (named for the alien mascot) Hot Dog and Sausage stand with all kinds of topping options making it unique in the Pioneer League and, other than the “Bottom’s Up” beer stand the signature item in the ballpark.

“Bottom’s Up” beer is just that, it’s filled from the bottom up to the top, eliminating foam, utilizing a magnet closure device once full. Pretty cool way to sell a lot of beer.

Voyagers’ owner, Vinnie Purpura, is a sprite-like, mustachioed, soft-spoken man exuding a calm dignity. Seated between home plate at the Voyagers’ dugout, Vinnie holds court with a stream of local well-wishers, including Great Falls mayor Bob Kelly, a former employee of Vinnie’s, as would Tommy Lasorda from his dugout corner sea at Dodger Stadium. Purpura moved from Buffalo, NY to Great Falls over 50 years ago, raised his family there and saved the ballclub from relocation.

“I love this community, said Vinnie from his grandstand seat on a steamy July nigh. “It feels a lot colder in Buffalo during the winter. It might be 10 below here, but it’s a dry cold.”

The game is a fun night out for local families. There are a few lowkey between innings games, the PA announcer is charmingly theatrical, and kids are delighted by Orbit, who is demure by mascot standards.

“You going to the Sip and Dip after the game?” inquired Purpura in the top of the ninth. “It’s our most famous bar. You gotta see the mermaid.”

Mermaid in a bar?

A quick Google search revealed that GQ Magazine declared the Sip and Dip, set above a motel in this remote corner of Montana, was one of the best bars in the U.S. How could this be? A bar above a motel in Great Falls with a mermaid swimming around? This had to be checked out, right?

Sure enough, above the O’Hair Motor Inn was well-adorned tiki bar, replete with thatched roof, hula-girl lamps, lots of bamboo adornments and, sure enough, a mermaid swimming in a glass- enclosed pool right across the bar from an about to be sipped umbrella-adorned mai tai.

As the story goes, during the tiki bar craze of the 50s, the O’Hair Motor Inn’s owner decided to one up his faux-Polynesian competitors by building a small swimming pool for a dipping and diving young woman wearing a day-glow fin suit for bar patrons to ogle rather than their own reflections on a back of the bar mirror. Even the most famous mermaid of all, Daryl Hannah, the star of the movie Mermaid, once visited the Sip and Dip along with the gravel-voiced Nick Nolte and was so enthralled by the sheer lunacy of the concept that she snuck around to the backbar dressing room and, wearing a mermaid suit herself, dove into the pool to the delight of the assembled crowd.

A visit to Great Falls and historic Centene Stadium, adjacent to a massive General Foods granary and hard up against the Missouri River, is full of incongruous surprises, not the least of which is watching a beer poured from the bottom up. And though there haven’t been any UFO sightings for quite some time, you never know what will happen when you come to watch a team called the Voyagers playing under the spectral overhang of a wood and steel grandstand built around the time Flash Gordon was fighting Ming the Merciless.