Monday, February 27, 2012

Mr. Pathmark and Life Lessons

A Pathmark supermarket commercial from the past is the wind beneath the wings of this essay. I am pleased to report this northeastern chain of stores is still around, which is good news considering the demise of so many others, including Bohack, Grand Union, and Peter Reeves. I’m happy, too, to convey that “Mr. Pathmark,” the longtime spokesperson for the grocery store is alive as well, and still active at the ripe old age of eighty-nine.

While I’m pretty good in linking old and recognizable character actors’ faces with their names, this fellow always gave me fits. The face and especially the voice were as familiar as familiar can be in the New York City area. That's because he was ubiquitous on local television—for decades—as Pathmark’s genial and trusted pitchman.

In the final episode of the long-running and popular Little House on the Prairie television show, a super-greedy, unctuously creepy entrepreneur clandestinely but legally bought up all of the land in the town of Walnut Grove. He attempted to drive the locals—one and all—away. Left with little recourse, the townspeople decided to blow up all of the buildings, which they owned, with dynamite—painful as that was—to zing this bloodless, over-reaching capitalist. And the actor who played villain Nathan Lassiter was none other than “Mr. Pathmark,” James Karen.

This veteran of Broadway, television, and film took on the role of a scoundrel—the man largely responsible for the incineration of an incredibly warm and fuzzy, syrupy special TV town. But he was simultaneously “Mr. Pathmark.” I recall reading somewhere that the supermarket chain received oodles of letters demanding Mr. Karen’s firing. After all, how could they employ the ghastly man who forced the men and women of Walnut Grove to blow up their homes and businesses? Mr. Karen was understandably upset that he could lose a very good job because a certain percentage of the public couldn’t decipher fantasy from reality—couldn’t separate a television show depicting a town in the 1880s with a guy reporting on sales of toilet paper, frozen peas, and laundry detergent one hundred years later.

I nevertheless take solace that “Mr. Pathmark” not only lives, but has left an enduring legacy for those of us who grew up in the northeast and watched television in the simpler times—with the simpler supermarkets—of the 1970s and 1980s.

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