AKRON, Ohio — It’s not a traditional McDonald’s Happy Meal.
That’s because it’s geared to the refined tastes of an older customer like mom and dad, aunt and uncle and grandmother and grandfather.
Yet most of the customers inside the McDonald’s restaurant at 2021 E. Market St. in Akron, Ohio, are as delighted as little children with what’s being served with their early morning fast-food selections.
Not only that, it’s free.
It’s the music of Diana Anderson, the part-time hostess there for the last five years, who in addition to myriad predictable duties, shares her operatic singing voice with customers. Inarguably, a much more pleasing idea than “whistling while you work.”
Some insist they’re regulars because of her singing. A great way to start their day, they say.
The Akron woman — a hard-to-believe 71-year-old dressed in a navy ball cap with the McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” logo, coordinating red/white/blue polo shirt and dark trousers — has a classically trained voice.
“God has blessed me all of my life. There were three times when I almost died, and each time God pulled me through,” she said with an I-sing-because-I’m-happy tone to her words.
“The first was when I was 5 and living with an abusive foster family,” she said. “Because nobody believed me, I stepped in front of a semi and waited for it to run over me. But it didn’t happen. The woman next door who was the mother of my foster mother called my dad, and I went to live with another family, the Schultzes, who were really an awesome match, with daughters Linda, Sissy and another one close to my age.”
In those days during World War II, Diana explained, it wasn’t uncommon for working parents like hers to pay other families to provide residential care for their children.
Her second near-death experience happened as she and her husband were returning from a recital at Penn State and were involved in a car crash: “A man in another car sped up, our bumpers locked, we went off the road and we rolled three times. We were in a brand new Rambler, which had no seat belts because they weren’t required back then.”
A third time was in the early ’70s when she became deathly ill with the London flu. “There was no room in the (Pittsburgh) hospitals, which were jammed full, even the hallways. I was so weak, I couldn’t walk, and I had three young children at home at the time. Prayer and singing have brought me through some really dark times!” she continued, including a recent brush with a pre-cancerous condition. “I just want people to know that God truly cares about them.”
Divorced now, Diana — proud mother of five and grandmother of eight — carries with her a well-worn book of arias, “The Prima Donna’s Album,” from which she makes her selections to go with the fast-food menu.
“I sing mostly in the back so it doesn’t interfere with customers placing their orders or impinge on customers’ personal conversations,” Diana said.
On this day, her audience couldn’t have been more eclectic: three men discussing the Cleveland Browns, a few tables of singles, seven Amish men who seemed quietly delighted as they placed their orders at the counter. “Zip A Dee Doo Dah” has a way of bringing joy to anyone’s ears.
Diana said she often wonders what her life would have been like had she pursued an operatic career. “But you make choices in life. I chose motherhood. For that, I have no regrets.”
Diana grew up in Northeast Ohio, part of it on Akron’s Thornton Street, where she remembers standing as a little girl in the bay window of an apartment and singing to her heart’s content. She graduated in 1960 from Bay Village High School, where she had her first vocal coach and successfully competed on the state level.
It was her now 90-year-old mother, Garnet Storey, and her then-stepfather, Charles Whited, who encouraged her singing and paid for those early lessons.
Over the years, she has sung in a variety of exceptional venues, including churches with symphony orchestra accompaniment, and performed sacred music behind the Iron Curtain. She also sang with her ex-husband, Don Anderson, and blind pianist David Rush.
“You’re a beautiful, confident woman,” regular customer Cindy Samels of Akron told Diana following her impromptu rendition of “O Mio Babbino Caro” from the opera Gianna Schicchi. “I think you’re wonderful! You make my day!”
Although Darlene Croasmun of Akron is hard of hearing, she said she could appreciate Diana’s rendition of the “Porgy and Bess” song “Summertime” because “she hits some pretty high notes.”
“It was so beautiful that it almost made me cry!” she said.
Apart from the book of arias, Diana, who percolates with energy whether pushing a broom or greeting customers, is known to serenade staff on their birthdays.
She’s also fond of making up spontaneous, silly songs for customers: “I was sweeping one day and someone had dropped a slice of pickle on the floor. So I made up a song about that.”
She’s a serious member of Akron’s Wedgewood United Methodist Church choir and longs to find a vocal coach to help return her glory days, but a humble Diana declared McDonald’s is her venue: “God has me where he wants me to be.”
So popular is Diana Anderson that she’s won the McDonald’s “crew competition” hospitality award for the last two years.