After 35 years, Howard Handler has returned to Detroit. His family has made an impact here for generations. Now it’s his turn to make his mark as the first official president of 313 Presents, which manages entertainment operations for a range of Detroit-area venues, including Little Caesars Arena, the Fox Theatre and DTE Energy Music Theatre.
Raised in suburban Detroit, Handler is no newcomer to many of these venues. His family lived on Pontchartrain Drive in Southfield, not far from Southfield-Lathrup High School (he was Class of 1979) and Congregation Shaarey Zedek, where he became a bar mitzvah. He earned undergraduate and M.B.A. degrees at the University of Michigan, but before that, he was a regular at Detroit-area music venues.
“My mom (Marlene) took me and my best friend, Neal Spector, to see The Wiz when it opened in Detroit,” he said. “I have memories of shows at Cobo and Olympia and Pine Knob. And those experiences led to a lifelong love of music, theater, and live entertainment.”
His oldest sister, Missy, introduced him and their sister Meg to the Beatles, Elvis and Aretha Franklin, and she helped him get an early job as a security Ranger at Pine Knob (now DTE Energy Music Theatre).
“That was a big deal,” Handler said.
In tandem with his love of entertainment, Handler’s attachment to Detroit also is tied deeply to family history.
His great-grandfather Charles Handler moved to Detroit shortly after World War I. He and his wife, Minnie, both originally from from Bialystok, Poland, moved here from Newark when Charlie saw an opportunity to sell coal in Michigan.
Within a generation, their son Max, Howard Handler’s grandfather, would become a noted businessman and philanthropist.
In an April 17, 1947, photo found in the Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History, Max is shown at an emergency campaign event to help the 1.5 million liberated Jews in the days after World War II. The meeting was held at the Leland Hotel, which is now undergoing a $120 million renovation.
The hotel is steps away from where Max’s grandson Howard Handler now works and lives.
Handler says his father — “a man of honor and integrity” — is a major influence in his life. Wallace Handler is a Detroit litigator known by colleagues as the “dean of the bankruptcy bar.”
Howard’s great-uncle Lou Handler, a pioneer in the sports business, was a one-time boxer who refereed and promoted professional championship fights, including Joe Louis’ first Golden Gloves title. Lou also founded and operated Camp Tamakwa in Ontario, Canada.
Michael Budman, current Tamakwa owner, goes back decades with the Handler family.
“It’s always great when Howard Handler finds his way to Camp Tamakwa on South Tea Lake, which was founded by his family in 1936,” Budman told the JN. “Moving back to Detroit will be a great step forward because Howard is extremely talented and savvy. I’m sure he’s going to create a great experience in the world-class venues in my hometown of Detroit.”
Throughout his life, Handler says he also has been inspired by the late David Hermelin, the Detroit-area real estate developer who became the U.S. Ambassador to Norway.
“David was a true giant in business and philanthropy and community leadership; but, most of all, he was a family man and a friend and a confidant to a huge number of people,” Handler said. “David was just a true Renaissance guy and inspired me, for sure. I grew up at his house and have a close relationship with the family.”
A succession of marketing jobs, many dealing with entertainment, led Handler to 313 Presents. He became senior vice president of marketing at Viacom, where he headed marketing for MTV, and was later a senior vice president of the National Football League and chief marketing officer for Major League Soccer.
One of his pinnacle career achievements was as chief marketing officer for Virgin Mobile. “We built a billion-dollar company and we took it public on the New York Stock Exchange,” he said.
A combination of factors made the 313 Presents job a winning deal for Handler: the chance to work with iconic venues, committed partners, a growing business and a city on the rise.
When he spoke with his wife, Wendy, about the job, he just thought it was the right time to come home “because I can make an impact and do something positive for the city that I’ve always loved.”
The couple have two adult children, Rian and Eli. And his parents, Wally and Marlene, still live in the area.
On The Job
Handler, 58, arrived back in Detroit the day after Thanksgiving 2019, caught the Michigan-Ohio State football game and then set up an apartment downtown. The official announcement of his new role at 313 Presents was made Dec. 5.
The company is a joint venture started in 2017 between Olympia Entertainment, a division of Ilitch Holdings, and Palace Sports & Entertainment. Handler replaces Tom Wilson, interim president since the company’s creation. Wilson now serves as president emeritus.
As president, Handler will oversee all entertainment events, making sure venues have the right performers and events. He will focus on finding ways to grow the business, including attracting highly competitive national events to the city. He also has oversight on marketing campaigns, integration of the latest technology trends and front-end and back-end operations. Recently, he launched the redesign of 313presents.com.
Handler has inherited some top-grossing venues. DTE Energy in Clarkston was named the No. 1 amphitheater in the world, with close to 600,000 paid attendees in 2019, according to Pollstar, an industry trade publication that provides year-end rankings. Little Caesars Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Pistons, moved up to No. 2 in the U.S. for top arenas for concert ticket sales, behind only Madison Square Garden (where Handler also once worked). LCA sold more than 900,000 tickets last year.
“I love every one of our venues,” Handler said. “Meadow Brook Theatre is almost like a summer camp, nestled in the woods at Oakland University. Comerica Park will be the host of four very, very big concerts this summer, and it provides a tremendous atmosphere in the great outdoors.”
Among its seven venues, 313 Presents also operates the intimate 1,500-seat Sound Board at Motor City Casino Hotel and the historic and grand Fox Theatre in Downtown Detroit and produces events at Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre at Freedom Hill County Park in Sterling Heights.
Handler views his new role as a way to impact economic activity in Detroit. “More quality events and shows will result in more activity downtown,” he said.
He’s most looking forward to helping the team achieve its full potential. “There are 40 people on the team now. I think they’ve got incredible talent,” he said. “We want to do some big ambitious things together.”
To that end, 313 Presents will be hosting the 2020 Frozen Four on April 9 and 11. That will be the second of four NCAA events at LCA. The company also will host the NCAA Men’s Basketball first and second rounds in 2021. And it’s got the NCAA Wrestling Championships in 2022. All four bids were awarded before LCA opened its doors.
313 Presents partners with the Detroit Sports Commission, which prioritizes the region’s efforts to secure these big events. Arn Tellem, vice chairman of the Detroit Pistons and a board member of the Detroit Sports Organizing Corporation, said he is excited to have Handler on board at 313 Presents.
“He not only has fantastic work achievements behind him, but he also has deep roots in the city,” Tellem said. “We are looking forward to his contributions to the community in years to come.”
Handler sees many positive opportunities to sell Detroit to outsiders. “I think we perfected R&B and punk and hip hop, in addition to Motown and techno,” he said. “Detroit is looked at as a sports-loving town. The four major professional teams are beloved. I think people see Detroit is a city with a vibrant and still-emerging food and restaurant scene. I think a lot of people see Detroit is a city of industry and creativity and art and design and innovation.
“So, I think there are lots of different ways that people view and embrace and are inspired by Detroit — Detroit is making its mark.”