Over the course of its 522-year history, the Vienna Boys’ Choir has appeared in the world’s most hallowed and historic venues, singing before many of the greatest figures in history. It is, perhaps, surprising then to learn that in the mid-1980s, the lobby of the Mansfield McDonald’s served as one of the most unusual stages on which the world-famous group has ever performed.
Thirty-five years ago, two-years prior to the opening of the Harold Strait Bypass, all traffic on Route 15 ran through downtown Mansfield and right past McDonald’s. One evening, just after the dinner rush, a young manager by the name of Bob Walsh noticed two touring busses pulling onto the lot.
Bob, whose parents Gene and Irene had opened the area’s first McDonald’s in 1979, watched as the nondescript but uniformed group of young boys and their chaperones entered the lobby. Nothing unusual about it. He was used to seemingly countless busses filled with school-aged children, athletic teams and tour groups stopping on a daily basis.
As per policy, bus drivers’ and group leaders’ meals are on the house and Bob called them over to comp their order. Bob, then as now, an outgoing and people-friendly kind of guy, struck up a conversation with the group leader employing a simple and often asked question , “So, who are you guys and where are you going?”
He remembers the answer today as clearly as he heard it those 35 or so years ago.
“Well,” said the group leader, “we are the Vienna Boys’ Choir. We just performed at the White House in Washington and are going to Niagara Falls.”
A young man in his early 20s at the time, Bob’s taste in music admittedly ran more toward performances by Meatloaf than boys’ choruses. But he certainly knew who the Vienna Choir Boys were and was awed and thrilled to have such a world-class act in his lobby.
Bob continued to engage the tour leader in conversation as his order was being filled and learned a lot about the group. He learned they were one of two tour choirs currently performing outside of Austria and that during their three-month tour of the United States and Canada they would do 70 performances. The boys ages were between 10 and 14 years old, and they lived and trained in a palace in Vienna year-round, except when on tour.
As the conversation came to a close and the tour leader was turning to join the boys seated in the lobby, Bob had just one more question, blurting out, “Well, hey – how about a song?” The tour leader looked back for a moment then said he would ask the boys if they would like to perform.
The answer was short in coming when the boys let out a chorus of cheers, no doubt in perfect pitch, to indicate they were more than thrilled to perform in the lobby of what turned out to be their favorite restaurant. According to newspaper accounts from earlier tours, when the boys had the opportunity to get a rare day out of training in Austria, they longed to go to the recently opened McDonald’s in Vienna.
They had just enough time to sing two songs when they finished eating. Flabbergasted, Bob went immediately into the office to start calling everyone, and anyone, he could think of to come down to McDonald’s for the once-in-a lifetime chance. His first call, of course, was to his parents. Gene asked if
Bob could stall them a bit because he didn’t think he could make it down in five minutes. Bob’s response went something along the lines that the Vienna Boys’ Choir doesn’t even wait for the Pope, so if he wanted to see them, he had better get in the car now.
It’s hard to comprehend just how unusual the spontaneous performance was for the group and the audience. The Choir’s venue contract in the 1980s included three pages of requirements that detail conditions down to the height and length of risers, air temperature, noise abatement, dressing room requirements and prohibition of smoking. The only contract conditions the Mansfield McDonald’s satisfied that evening was providing food and drinks to the performers.
The folks Bob managed to contact were still scrambling into the lobby as the boys were finishing their meals. With precision, the boys formed two perfect lines of 12 each, one in front of the other with their backs against the front window. The audience, some of whom had no idea what the heck was going on, was seated and eating at tables with others standing by the counter in front of them.
Following a brief harmonizing and tuning of voices, a marked silence seemed to descend upon the restaurant. Bob doesn’t recall hearing the background of buzzers and bells that continuously flooded the busy McDonalds. Idle chatter was absent, replaced by a quiet anticipation and stillness found only in a church.
And then the silence was broken by what seemed to be the voices of angels.
Bob can still hear the fa la la la la as the boys first song showcased their remarkable uplifting pitch and harmonizing skills. The second song, as Bob recalls, was more classical, elegant and of course sounded perfect.
The audience, some still not aware they were not listening to local talent, but to a world-class performance group, erupted into applause and the performers beamed with pride. Bob, no doubt moved by the performance he had innocently created, informed the group that sodas and treats were on him as they filed out of the store to board the busses to Niagara Falls. The remarkable story had ended as quickly as it began.
We’re all aware that Mansfield hosted the world’s night football. But now we also know that our little community has yet another unmatched milestone in world history. We are the first – and perhaps the only – place that hosted a performance of the Vienna Boys’ Choir in a McDonald’s.