Rob Ahlgren was fond of applying the title The Art Of Life to special events he organized in White Rock and South Surrey.
Now that he’s ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’ – as Shakespeare put it – the phrase seems to be a very fitting epitaph for this gentle, generous friend of the arts.
Although he had a strong connection to various media – including the visual, performing and culinary arts – his medium was really life itself. He knew how to turn any venue into an ongoing celebration. And I can think of few people I’ve known in this life who have better personified the notion of ‘bon vivant’.
Rob, who passed away on June 4 at Central Okanagan Hospice House – after several years of battling cancer – is being remembered fondly this week, across the province and beyond, by many people whose lives he touched in a variety of roles.
Some knew him as a very fine competitive tennis player. Others knew him from his time as a waiter at Charlie Don’t Surf and other White Rock establishments, or from epic, legendary parties hosted at a local residence known simply as ‘Harlem.’
Many knew him – as customers, entertainers, or both – as the genial proprietor and host of the Beecher Street Café in Crescent Beach, and, later, the Yellow House Restaurant in Kelowna.
Others came to know him only latterly, as he fought cancer and, with typical selflessness, shared his journey of discovery of treatments both conventional and alternative.
His backing of the career of gifted singer-songwriter Jason Mitchell (along with Doug Lachance and others) is but one example of his incredible generosity to musicians, entertainers and artists of all kinds. When I first came to White Rock I met many talented Peninsula residents, including singer Heidi McCurdy, through Rob’s introduction – but never with any suggestion that he sought to benefit directly from the connection.
Among venue owners he was virtually in a class of his own. His mantra toward live entertainment never seemed to be “what will this do to bring dollars to my business?” Instead, he always seemed to be thinking about how he could make the experience of the different and the wonderful an integral element of building his clientele.
I see him still, standing just a little off stage – as ever, in open-necked shirt, raising a glass of some excellent vintage – a grin of sheer delight spreading across his face as he contemplated some moment of musical inspiration.
His response to the sometimes wacky ideas of creative people around him – and there were many of us, over the years, at his expressed invitation – was never dismissive. He was the epitome of ‘possibility thinking.’
“Yes,” he would say, pondering the idea in his usual quiet, soft-spoken manner. “We could do something like that.”
And I’ll never forget his gentle – but never cruel or judgmental – chuckles at memories of wild and crazy Semiahmoo Peninsula characters we had both encountered at parties, venues and events over the years.
I met him first, I believe, more than 30 years ago when my band was playing at Charlie Don’t Surf – back in the days when he laughingly referred to himself as ‘the worst waiter in the world’ because he was more interested in people as personalities rather than as ‘orders.’ I remember him quickly doffing an apron between serving his tables and stepping up to the microphone to introduce the band. Even then, the role of host and presenter seemed to fit him best.
Some of my memories of him and his ambitious events seem hallucinatory in retrospect. Did Rob really charter a venerable steamship for a musical cruise of Semiahmoo Bay and beyond in the early ’90s? And did it really ram the White Rock pier when the captain misjudged the rate of knots during the approach? I’m not sure that ever happened.
I know that I and pianist Dominik Heins were among the last performers to play at Beecher Street Café one evening just before Rob closed the business in 2013. But I remember being there so many other evenings over the years as part of various ensembles – including playing bass and singing for my late dad’s group, the Art Anthony Trio, in the mid-90s.
I remember that well – one of my treasured mementos is a bottle of a limited-edition Beecher Street Café wine that used an evocative painting of the occasion by artist Lois Stewart (whose work was frequently exhibited at the café) as its label. The same image, I recall, used to adorn the menus at one time.
As I look at it today, there’s a younger version of myself at the stand-up bass, and dad (who passed a decade ago) still alive in familiar, hunched-over pose at his guitar.
And there, too, now (if only in my mind’s eye), is Rob, smiling at us, just offstage.
RIP, Rob. You can be sure I’ll be raising a glass or two in your memory.