Film tracks emigre's rise and fall

People | 3 Jan 2018

Jan Lewandowski built a "polka empire" from his base in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, only to watch it crumble after his arrest on fraud charges.

Lewandowski's rise and fall is played for laughs in The Polka King, starring Jack Black as the flamboyant Polish emigre who attracted legions of polka fans - and fleeced some of them as he tried desperately to keep his business enterprises afloat. The movie comedy premieres January 12 on Netflix.

Now living quietly in Florida, the 76-year-old is thrilled about Black's portrayal, warts and all.

Lewandowski said he spent hours with the actor and comedian, telling him his life's story and working with him on his Polish accent.

"I heard myself when he was talking," Lewandowski said.

"I'm telling you, in moments, I'm wondering if it's me or him. ... Jack Black portrayed me in a fantastic way." The Grammy-nominated bandleader and crooner better known as Jan Lewan (yahn leh-VAHN) served five years in prison after pleading guilty to bilking investors.

An exuberant performer, Lewandowski and his polka band were popular throughout the 1980s and '90s.

They played scores of shows a year from Florida to New York, enjoying a long run at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.

In 1995, he earned a Grammy nomination for best polka album for Jan Lewan and His Orchestra.

Lewandowski, who defected from communist Poland in the 1970s and became a US citizen, branched out with a travel business that took fans on tours of Poland and other countries; a gift shop and mail-order catalog; and his own TV and radio shows.

To fund his ventures, he sold promissory notes to his ardent fans, using money from new investors to pay off old ones to whom he had promised huge returns.

It was a classic Ponzi scheme.


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