In a Jan. 22, 2017 photo, Jan Lewandowski, right, better known as Jan Lewan, embraces actor and comedian Jack Black at the premiere of ‚‘The Polka King‚’ at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Lewandowski’s rise and fall is the subject of ‚‘The Polka King,’ a comedy starring Black as the polka bandleader convicted of fleecing fans of millions of dollars. (John Koterba via AP)

Polka, Ponzi and prison: Jack Black stars in new biopic

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 Jan. 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 by phone from West Palm Beach. “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 costumed in sequins, Lewandowski and his polka band were popular on the festival circuit 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. Critical acclaim came by way of a 1995 Grammy nomination for best polka album for “Jan Lewan and His Orchestra.”

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

To fund his ventures, he began selling promissory notes to his ardent fans, many of them elderly, using money from new investors to pay off old investors to whom he had promised huge returns. It was a classic Ponzi scheme.

Lewandowski said he didn’t set out to cheat anybody. But he acknowledges he hurt people who had placed their trust in him.

“I don’t hide. I did wrong,” he said.

Prosecutors said he defrauded about 400 investors in more than 20 states. A federal judge who sentenced him to prison called his conduct “despicable.”

More than eight years after his release, Lewandowski is retired and doesn’t perform much anymore. He lives off Social Security and gives the occasional piano lesson, barely making a dent in his court-ordered restitution of nearly $5 million — a judgment he has little chance of satisfying.

“The Polka King,” based on a 2009 documentary about Lewandowski, could boost his profile if not fatten his wallet. (He said he wasn’t a paid consultant, though the producers took care of his travel expenses.) Lewandowski said he’s in talks with an Atlantic City casino, which he declined to name, about a reunion concert with his band.

“I’d be able to pay a little bit more in restitution,” he said. “I want to perform.”

Some of his victims aren’t exactly thrilled about a comeback or the movie.

Eleanore Ciuba, 87, of Galloway, New Jersey, and her late husband lost tens of thousands of dollars to Lewandowski. She has never forgiven him, calling the disgraced bandleader a “dirty rotten bastard” who doesn’t deserve the attention.

“I don’t know who would be interested in that kind of a movie, to tell you the truth, about dealing and stealing from people,” said Ciuba, who recalls getting a single, tiny restitution check.

Lewandowski said he’s sorry for the people who lost money. Ever upbeat, he shrugs off his critics.

“They don’t want to see me happy,” he said, “but I am happy right now.”

And he’s hoping “The Polka King” will give the genre itself a boost.

“The ones who care about the polka are old, and they’re not dancing any more,” he said. “Now we need a younger generation.”

Just Posted

Shipping oil by rail questioned

Red Deer-area mayors respond

Country star Gord Bamford and The Reclaws perform free Games concert Friday

Show starts at 6:30 p.m. in heated dome off Celebration Plaza in downtown Red Deer

Survey looks at social isolation among older men

Partnership between Red Deer College and Golden Circle Resource Centre

Peruvian brothers travel nearly 8,000 km to volunteer at Canada Winter Games in Red Deer

Italo and Mirko Del Castillo say Canadian warmth contrasts with twinter cold

Pride Days celebrated for first time at Canada Winter Games on Feb. 21 and 28

Pride Days are another first for Red Deer’s 2019 Canada Winter Games.… Continue reading

Gardening: What are you planting in 2019?

What’s new in plants for 2019? Checking catalogues, greenhouses and stores will… Continue reading

Opinion: I spy another energy hypocrite

Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. The mittens provided to… Continue reading

Canada’s bobsleigh team races World Cup on Calgary home track facing closure

CALGARY — Canada’s skeleton and bobsled teams will race a World Cup… Continue reading

Italy becomes ninth international football league to join forces with CFL

TORONTO — Add Italy to the growing list of international football federations… Continue reading

Toronto Defiant Overwatch academy team to be known as the Montreal Rebellion

MONTREAL — The Toronto Defiant’s Overwatch academy team will be known as… Continue reading

Canadian fashion and design insiders recall Karl Lagerfeld’s charm, ingenuity

TORONTO — Several Canadian fashion and design experts who knew couture icon… Continue reading

Millennial Money: Make your funds move at the speed of life

Change is constant — especially when you’re young. Chances are you’ll cycle… Continue reading

TSB says improved tankers involved in Manitoba derailment that spilled crude

ST. LAZARE, Man. — Federal investigators say CN rail cars that spilled… Continue reading

Most Read