For several days earlier this year, Peter Aucella watched from his window in Lowell as George Clooney and Ben Affleck filmed scenes for an upcoming film on the sidewalk out front. Aucella and his wife, Rosemary, had their picture taken with Clooney, and he petted their dog.
The film set for “The Tender Bar” brought a welcome distraction as people in Lowell coped with the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus shutdown, Aucella said. But that was nothing compared with the excitement he’s feeling for the return of the Lowell Summer Music Series. He’s the general manager of the Lowell Festival Foundation.
Like so many cultural events, the Lowell Summer Music Series was forced to take a hiatus last season, which would have been its 31st. The series brings national touring acts to Lowell’s Boarding House Park, a serene urban setting adjacent to the historic Boott Mills. This summer’s concert calendar includes headliners John Hiatt, Richard Thompson, Ani DiFranco, Rhiannon Giddens, and Los Lobos.
In trying times, Aucella’s enthusiasm has been tested. Just weeks ago, he and his team were still uncertain whether the concerts would in fact go on. Despite the fact that the state lifted all restrictions on May 29, Boarding House Park, which is part of Lowell National Historical Park, must abide by federal regulations. As of this writing, the National Parks were still requiring some social distancing measures and masks for the unvaccinated.
Given the uncertainty, Aucella feared he may have to limit capacity to 400. (The park holds about 1,850.)
“This stops us cold,” he wrote in an e-mail to some of his partners.
But Peter Lally, the founder of Spectacle Management, which now books the music series, calmed him down. Spectacle operates several venues around New England, including Lowell Memorial Auditorium. If necessary, Lally proposed, the auditorium could be used as a fall-back plan.
In past years, big-name acts — the Beach Boys, Lyle Lovett, the Indigo Girls — have been sellouts. This year, Aucella said, he’ll be happy if the Summer Music Series can attract, say, 1,000 ticket buyers for each event.
“We expect some people are going to want to spread out a little,” he said. “We want people to be comfortable.” The park concerts are general admission with a small area of premium seating; fans typically bring their own blankets or lawn chairs.
Aucella, who grew up in Malden, has a long history of civic engagement in his adopted hometown of Lowell. After working for the late Paul Tsongas, he took a post as executive director of the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission in 1986. He was instrumental in the creation of Boarding House Park before beginning a nearly 25-year run as the assistant superintendent of Lowell National Historical Park, which covers several sites related to the city’s industrial history.
He stepped into the unpaid GM position with the music series just before the recent retirement of longtime festival director John Marciano.
It was a homecoming of sorts. Aucella helped launch the Summer Music Series in 1990.
“This was always like my hobby,” said Aucella over a cup of coffee in downtown Lowell.
He has plenty of like-minded colleagues around the city who are just as eager to see the return of other gatherings that have contributed to Lowell’s renaissance over the past few decades. Twice a month through July, Kerouac Park is hosting the Fresh Beets concert series, free of charge. The monthly Lowell Arts Market returns at various locations through September. The 40th annual Lowell Banjo and Fiddle Contest is set for Sept. 11.
September also will see the return of the Lowell Kinetic Sculpture Race, an enthusiastically wacky event that features homemade, human-powered art cars. The race, established in 2016, has quickly become a highlight of the local calendar.
Slowly but surely, the city’s heartbeat is quickening, said Rick Lofria. He was recently named the new executive director of the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Lofria is especially looking forward to the return of students to UMass Lowell in the fall.
“When the students come back, the population goes twofold,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be something.”
One event that will not return until next year is the Lowell Folk Festival, the beloved multicultural festival that is the longest-running free event of its kind in the country.
Because the folk festival takes place on multiple stages across downtown, with no limit to attendance, it would not have been possible to maintain social distancing measures, Aucella said. Due to scheduling concerns, the decision was made before the state lifted its restrictions.
“That’s a huge loss,” he said. “It adds so much energy to this town. Everyone spruces up. People come out, and the town looks so great.”
As for the summer music series, he can’t say for sure yet what a successful season might look like. He has his fingers crossed.
“We don’t know if people are going to come out,” he said.
“On the other hand, people are saying, ‘Let me out!’”
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.