Television may have taught us to overlook any breach of propriety so long as it is committed in the sacred name of commerce.
After all, no one appears very alarmed that Will Rogers Jr. regularly materializes on television invoking the name of his late father, a revered figure of Americana, in order to help sell breakfast cereal.
And a clothing company boldly plucks from our sentimental memories such names as Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart in order to sell us shirts.
But wait. THIS was too much: Four people sitting around a sunny backyard breakfast table extolling orange juice -- two toothy lads, a slightly chunky teen-aged girl and a mother who seems to embody the spirits of both an ingenue and a diva -- with one other person conspicuously, painfully, missing.
Why, of course -- it was BING! He had been subtracted from the picture! And here was his family, less than a year after his death, carrying on bravely without him and still quaffing the old Minute Maid for love or money, probably the latter.
Tonight on CBS, Bing's life after death is carried a shaky step further with "Bing Crosby -- The Christmas Years," a one-hour CBS special at 9 on Channel 9. There is nothing wrong with taking highlights from Bing's past Christmas specials -- he did them, on radio and TV, for 40 years -- in order to warm the cockles of our cold-cockled little hearts, not even if it also warms the bank accounts of a TV network and several advertisers trading on his memory.
But when the surviving members of his family turn up to host the show, and glibly saunter through recollections of the good old days when daddy was alive, the effect goes beyond cozy to eerie and then proceeds right up to morbid.
On Nov. 17, 1977, CBS publicity noted sadly that "Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas," televised later that month, would be "the legendary performer's final television show."
We should have known better than to count on that. Death is no refuge for those deemed still merchandisable; one only needs to browse through a record store bin filled with "new" albums by Jim Croce, Jimi Hendrix and, yes, Bing Crosby, to realize that. And, indeed, one of the blessings of the recording technology explosion, both audio and video, is that it can freshen our memories of illustrious or cherished entertainers and public figures and make their performances permanent.
The trick is to keep nostalgic tingles up the spine from turning into a simple case of the willies. "We have so many wonderful memories to share," says Harry Crosby, Bing's son, on the CBS special, but the fact of the matter is, we endured Bing's family on his Christmas shows all those years only because Bing himself was such a charm and a comfort.
They pop up now with a stack of Der Bingle's old video tapes, plop them one by one on a cassette machine and sit back to watch them, with us, on a giant-screen TV set (provided by General Electric, according to a plug in the credits). Since producer-director Bob Finkel by no means chose the best moments from those old shows, it's clear enough that the intention is to continue the annual tradition of Bing Crosby Christmas specials, without letting the technicality of Bing's death interrupt them.
The program may sound like a real sentimental bender -- but if so, it's only by viewer inference. Wife Kathryn and Crosby offspring Harry, Nathaniel and Mary Frances chitchat about Bing so casually that you'd think he'd just gone down to the corner grocery store for a loaf of bread.
It might even appear that they are trying to gloss over the fact that he died at all. What is death, anyway, in a society of images? As long as the tapes hold up, the show goes on.
Mrs. Crosby does say -- in that too-too gracious-lady way of hers -- how nice it is that "there are things in this world that are constant and reassuring." In context, however, that becomes more of a hosanna for videotape than a sweet remembrance of one of the century's noblest entertainers.
"The Christmas Years," at that, might better be taken as a science-fiction program -- a peek into the not-distant-enough future when family reminiscence will turn into a totally electronic rite. The scrapbook will be scrapped forever. What was once the attic will become the storage and retrieval center. Care to see Aunt Ida's wedding or brother Barry's bris? All you'll have to do is locate the appropriate videotape cassette and slap it into the machine.
Prodigal sons will be beamed back home; lost loved ones will be found; forgotten flames will be rekindled; expired pets will bark and mew anew, and our own elusive youths will be recaptured and replayed on the same machine that brings us the news, the weather and Bing Crosby, still alive after all these years.
Watching a black-and-white tape of a 1966 "Hollywood Palace" show that Bing hosted, one of his kids notes. "Dad sure was proud of us that night." Later, Mrs. Crosby says of the program, "It was a lovely and innocent time for all of us," and that the past is "something we should remember any way that we can."
The way it's being remembered here is through a convenient and deceptive layer of gauze, however, and the technology which engendered this miracle begins to seem slightly unsavory.
The prevailing message of the program probably has less to do with a seasonal warning trend than with the proclamation, "Bing is dead, long live Bing" -- so long as he continues to make good Nielsess.