WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - When 76-year-old Jan Lewandowski (Lewan) was a little boy growing up in Nazi-controlled Poland, he had big dreams. He wanted to come to America and get rich. He wanted to be a big star. His dream eventually came true -- until he lost everything.
This is the story about Jan Lewandowski who is played by Jack Black in a Netflix biopic.
Throughout the '80s and '90s, Jan Lewandowski was recognized internationally as a songwriter, polka band leader and tour guide. He led tours all over Europe and arranged private audiences with Pope John Paul II for thousands of people. He hosted his own local television show for seven years on the Fox-affiliated station in northeastern Pennsylvania, was nominated for a Grammy, survived a tour bus crash that killed two of his band members and injured several others, and was nearly killed when his throat was slashed with a razor while serving prison time.
Jan was a nice guy. He played Polka music because this brand of music makes everybody happy and he wanted everybody to be happy. "Polka music is like Mariachi music - it makes people happy." Ultimately, he committed a crime making people happy and landed in prison.
"The Polka King" is the true life story of Polish immigrant, Jan Lewandowski, played by comedian Jack Black. The world premiere of the movie took place at The Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 22, 2017. and debuted on Netflix on Jan. 12, 2018.
"This movie is the closing to the story of my life." - Jan Lewandowski
Jan was born in Poland in 1942. He was educated in drama and music at Gdansk and performed with the Syrena Theater in Warsaw appearing alongside famous Polish stars. The Syrena Theater provided him with the opportunity to perform on Polish national TV and record his first record at the communist vinyl record factory Muza.
After performing in many international theaters and with the Melody Druzy Review, his VISA arrived for a tour to North America. and this led to performances with actors and singers in Polish church halls throughout Canada and the United States. He eventually settled in Hazleton, Pa., which is where he spread his wings and musical genius.
His story is one of celebrity, crime and coming back. His dream of becoming rich and losing everything was a hard lesson and showed there are no shortcuts to success after his complicated investment scandal landed him in prison.
- Conservatory of Music, Gdansk - studied vocal and piano, sang in the Operetta
- First Public Performance - appeared as Cupid, Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld"
- Syrena Theater - signed a contract and appeared with Polish celebrities in Warsaw
- Melody Druzy Review – sang in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia
- North America Tour - toured polish church halls across Canada and U.S.
- Polish Heritage Festival – invited to perform at the Garden State Arts Center, NJ
- FOX TV station - hosted Polka show for seven years on FOX-affiliated television station
Over the years, Jan refined his style of entertainment, formed his Orchestra and recorded several records. His most popular recording, “Ole, Ole,” received a Grammy nomination in 1995.
Photos: 'The Polka King' Jan Lewan and his orchestra
After settling in Hazleton, Jan Lewan began to build his entertainment businesses including:
- Assembled the Jan Lewan Orchestra which toured all over the country
- Opened a Polish gift shop based in Hazleton, Pennsylvania
- Distributed a quarterly mail-order catalog for his Polish souvenirs
- Hosted a weekly Polka TV show for seven years on the FOX-affiliated station in PA
- Hosted tour groups throughout Europe including Poland
Jan's polka tours took him to Poland, Ireland, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, England, Jerusalem, Russia, Greece, Egypt and Ukraine. While touring Poland, he purchased tchotchkes at ridiculously low prices and re-sold the merchandise back in his Hazleton store at market value. He began to make a lot of money, and his friends kept telling him to buy more, and they’ll all get rich together. With each trip to Poland, Jan stockpiled Polish souvenir inventory and started offering unregistered promissory notes in his store at guaranteed 12 percent interest to help pay for it.
“When I traveled with people to Poland in the '80s, Poland was at the age of bankruptcy. Tourists were very welcome in Poland. Poland wanted tourists to visit. I created my first tour with over 200 people and almost everyone was amazed at how cheap everything in Poland was. Five people went to dinner, and had filet mignon and cognac, and it was only five dollars. That did not happen in America at that time. That led me to want to get into business. People were telling me left and right, buy and invest in Poland, and we’re all going to get rich. I started buying Poland. When we came back, I saw money on my desk from one person after another, coming from people I did not even know. They were investing with me. We went to the attorney, and he said everything was fine. My accountant created the promissory notes, and everyone said everything is fine. I built a two-story store with an elevator and filled it with merchandise from Poland. I invested almost $5 million dollars in merchandise in my store.” - Jan Lewandowski
Photos: The Polka King Jan Lewan led tours to Poland
As Jan built his retail and mail-order business, and his Polka music following, he received invitations to perform before President Ronald Reagan and President George H. W. Bush, in Atlantic City at Trump’s Taj Mahal, in New York and The Poconos. He arranged private audiences with Pope John Paul II, formed a personal friendship with former Polish President Lech Walesa and met celebrities from all over the world and many became friends.
The highlight of Jan's career was performing several times a year for 17 years at the Donald Trump Taj Mahal Casino Hotel in Atlantic City. He also performed with his orchestra and symphony at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, the most prestigious concert hall in the United States.
Jan was enchanting. He had a winning combination of good looks, charisma, talent and magnetic personality which attracted people to him. Everyone wanted to be around him. Jan Lewan was living large until his empire came crashing down.
In May 1998, Jan's wife Rhonda entered the Mrs. Pennsylvania Pageant held in Lancaster, Pa. Rhonda ended up winning the beauty pageant but was later stripped of the crown when an investigation revealed the judges’ scores had been tampered with. This led to an investigation and many years of criminal and civil lawsuits. Lewan and her husband Jan were interviewed by local authorities but were never charged with any crime or wrongdoing.
“When my wife entered the pageant, she did not help me in my business, because she dedicated herself for a whole year to become Mrs. Pennsylvania. In my opinion, she was the most beautiful contestant. She practiced her speech. She perfected her walk. She did everything necessary to win. Then, she started giving speeches which would end up helping her later in life. In my opinion, she was the winner. She made a big mistake when she gave up the crown. She did this because she got tired of hearing she did not deserve to win. She said, 'I’m going to give it back.' While in court, Rhonda was asked to walk over to the jury to show the jury how beautiful she was. According to Jan, 'I did not fix the scores. It’s impossible to tamper with the Judges scores.' The last statement in the court was 'Not guilty. Discharged.'” - Jan Lewandowski
After this, Jan's investors began to lose faith in him and started asking for their money back.
Darkness continued to loom over Jan and his family when the second blow struck. After finishing a performance in Hazleton, Jan and his Orchestra lost two musicians in an overnight bus crash on Jan. 26, 2001 along Interstate 95 in South Carolina. The band was traveling to Florida to play several scheduled performances. The crash killed accordion player Tom Karas and trombonist John Stabinsky and left Jan’s son Daniel hospitalized in critical condition. After the crash, several band members were not able to play their instruments for many years.
Within a year after the deadly accident, Jan declared bankruptcy. One year later, he pleaded guilty in state court (Delaware) and in federal court (Pennsylvania) for defrauding investors.
"Unfortunately, due to the collapse in the business, and when I learned I should have never taken investor money without registration, when you drown, you catch anything to stay on top of the water. That’s exactly what I did. One after the other, with the accident, with Mrs. Pennsylvania, when the market went down – people who have money in the market, they couldn’t call anybody. When they invested with Jan Lewan, they went after me. I had no way out. So, my store was full of beautiful merchandise. When they liquidate you, they liquidate everything. I finished in the jail, and they almost liquidated me in jail, too. But I survived.” - Jan Lewandowski
Jan was sentenced to six years in a federal prison in Delaware. His friends told him he should have never been assigned to this particular prison because it was a maximum security prison in Smyrna, Del., with the roughest of criminals.
When he arrived, he was placed in a dark hall with over a hundred inmates. This hall was the holding area before inmates were assigned a cell and cellmate. The hall was a dark place, there was a lack of air, and you were not allowed to speak loudly. Jan could not see anything but was able to hear rapping Gospel music sung from other inmates. The gospel music and rap ultimately led him to write and record his "Rappin Polka" song which he wrote while in prison.
“And, me with my Polish accent, with broken English to a certain point, light personality, I could not find myself. I thought I was going to be OK. I can handle it. It was a different kind of people. They put me in the prison with an inmate who spent seven years in solitary confinement. While in solitary, you’re living by yourself. They let you go into a cage and you walk in that cage which is bigger than your cell. It became time for this inmate to get him out of solitary to see if he could live with somebody else. That somebody else was me. It did not take too long. He got very unpleasant even though I was trying my best to get a friendship with him. I was buying him coffee. But that wasn’t enough for him. When I was sleeping one night, he slashed my neck a few times with a razor and my back. The intercom did not work when I jumped to the door. If I was bleeding a little bit more, I probably would not be here today. While in prison, I learned to be nice to everybody. That stayed with me even after the prison. The jail time makes you a different person. When I was involved in so many businesses, I made mistakes and I have to absorb that. I fired people. I hired people. I was nasty. I was a different person. After prison, you give up with everything. You don’t care. You erase because it could not be any worse. If I had one pair of underpants, or fifty pairs of underpants, it does not matter. I'd wash the one pair. Your needs are no longer the same. I could not do any better than trying to do my best. The fact now that I am coming back, it has nothing to do with my bank account. I love the career. I love to entertain people. I love to see them smile. I love my grandson. I am happy to take care of my family. If I have a reason to complain, I don’t. When you come out of prison, you don’t care about anything. I can’t feel any hurt anymore. I almost lost life. I got hurt with harsh statements. I read those things, and I believe I don’t deserve to be punished in that way. When "The Polka King" movie came out, people told me no one will want to talk to you. The opposite is happening - I am getting a lot of words of encouragement." - Jan Lewandowski
Photos: Jan Lewan is played by Jack Black in Netflix biopic 'The Polka King'
After his release from prison in 2009, Jan is making his comeback with a new beginning. He performed in a reunion concert before a sold-out crowd at the Philharmonic Hall in Hazleton, Pa. While in prison, Jan wrote “Rappin’ Polka” and this song debuted at the reunion concert. The song is an expression of everything that happened to him. It is the story of his life.
Lewan had several movie offers before "The Polka King" was produced. The first offer came from England. "Europeans are more sympathetic with people who did something wrong. They weigh both sides before passing judgment. A gentleman from London learned about me from a fellow prison inmate." - Jan Lewandowski
During Jan's imprisonment in Smyrna, he was transferred to a Federal Immigration Prison in Ohio where undocumented prisoners were prepared for departure if they were not US citizens. Jan speculates something or someone prompted this behind his back because they thought he was not an American citizen. He was investigated for citizenship. At the moment they tried to deport him, federal judge William J. Nealon from Scranton acknowledged Jan was a U.S. citizen. He said, "Yes, he became a US citizen in my courtroom. In my court, people usually cry. But Jan was singing in my courtroom."
Jan was then relocated from the Ohio Immigration Prison back to Lancaster Federal Prison where he finished out his prison time. He was released from prison in 2009 and was on probation for three years and was unable to leave Hazleton. During this time, his daughter Amber lived with her father, making up for the lost years while he was in prison.
While in the Ohio prison, Jan met an inmate who was a sports car driver champion in Europe – he was from Czechoslovakia. He was caught buying cocaine and was locked up and transferred to America to serve prison time. While he was finishing the end of five years, he learned about Jan's story. Since he was such a rich man living in Europe, he told movie producers about a documentary on Jan released in 2007 called "The Man Who Would be Polka King.” This resulted in Jan's first movie offer which ended up dissipating.
The next offer came from a Hollywood Director who visited with Jan, John Koterba and Jo, Lightning Videos, in West Palm Beach. John and Jo were Jan's personal videographers and they had decades of archival footage because they filmed Jan's entire career and highlights from his European tours.
The producer asked to see the biography Jan wrote while in prison. At that time, a friend of Jan said he would rewrite the book to make it appear more professional. He rewrote Jan's 1,300-page book to a mere 40 pages. As you can imagine, so much of the story was left out. The Hollywood Director ended up reading those 40 pages, watched the 2007 documentary, and got very excited to do the movie. The company sent Jan a contract but it never panned out.
According to Jan, “Producer John Mikulak called me months later and told me people from Hollywood wanted to meet me. I said, from Hollywood?" Shortly after this call, a Hollywood Executive Producer flew to West Palm Beach to meet with Jan, Jo and John Koterba, Jan’s personal videographers and friends. They spoke for hours, looked at photos and the producer left and went back to Hollywood. Jan did not hear anything more for six months. After six months, another producer called Jan and said, “Jan, I believe in your story. It’s going to be bigger than ever.” The way he talked to Jan, Jan believed him. According to Jan, he went on to say, “We are going to make that movie. We just spoke to Jack Black and he said 'do not give that movie to anybody else. I am born to play Jan Lewan. You can tell Jan that when you see him.' And, that's when production for "The Polka King" movie began."
To prepare for the movie role, Jan facetimed with Jack for several months. He wanted to know everything about Jan from the day he was born. Over time, they became virtual friends and according to Jan, Jack said, "I am going to be 100 percent you in this movie.”
As the movie was finalizing production, the audio management team reached out to Jan to request songs they wanted to use in “The Polka King” movie. According to Jan, for instrumentation, you need 12 musicians, and even if you have great musicians, you need good polka musicians, because it’s a different kind of playing. Jan reached out to his music director, Stephan Kaminski. It was very important to Stephan for the music in the movie to sound like the former Jan Lewan Orchestra. Stephan helped with all the music arrangements for the recording session and was able to include five of the original musicians along with the other studio musicians. Jan helped secure original musicians Steve Saive, trumpet, and Scott Shurick, saxophone, for the studio recording.
The audio recording for "The Polka King" movie took place at The Power Station, formerly known as the Avatar Recording Studio, in New York City. Music from former artists including Barbra Streisand, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, and Star Wars were recorded in this famous studio.
Jan told Jack he would like to be in the studio for the audio recording to which Jack replied "that was a blessing." The recording session was the first time the two met in person while the move was being produced.
During the recording session, Jan had earphones on and was singing Polish in one channel while playback with the orchestra was playing in the other ear. There are only a few people who have a special talent to repeat exactly what they are hearing and Jack Black was so talented, “he was able to sing the Polish music precisely as it sounded,” Jan said.
After the audio recording was completed, Jan asked Jack if he would join him and Stephan for dinner. According to Jan, Jack said, “Jan, gather all your musicians. I am calling the limo and we are going to my favorite pizza place in New York.” And they all went and drank beer and ate pizza. The evening was extraordinary. According to Jan, he signed a piece of paper saying "You are my Polish brother. Love, Jack.”
Where is Jan Lewan today? “I am living now in Paradise. Paradise is Florida, and I am in West Palm Beach thanks to my friends, John Koterba and Jo. They welcomed me here. They were always with me even while I was in prison. And that is the way I believe I should finish my last chapter in my life -- living in paradise, taking care of my health, taking care of everything coming along to me, especially now with this movie excitement. I’m creating tours to Poland. We are going for a faraway final tour to Poland on Sept. 3, which I believe will be quite successful due to the movie. But the most exciting thing to me is my grandson. I am the 'Dziadzia, the Grandfather.' I spend most of my free time with my 5-year-old grandson, Tyler. My son, when I got out of prison, told me, Daddy, my wife Amy and I will have for you a grandchild. I was crying. It took one year, and I have a grandson, Tyler. From the day he was born, almost every weekend, he is with Dziadzia. That’s the way it is. They have no choice. Tyler loves it. Now, I’m teaching him how to play the piano. My son is very successful, and I am very proud of him. He is the general manager of a beautiful hotel. My beautiful daughter Amber became a chef. She is a very talented young lady. Every time I travel to Pennsylvania, I put on a few pounds. She is getting married on October 14 in the Poconos. We’re all going. Everything will be recorded as always”. - Jan Lewandowski
Photos: Jan Lewan shares photos of his life
Jan spends his days riding his bicycle around West Palm Beach, teaching piano and paying off his$5 million in restitution.
“Now, let me share this final testimony. If all of these things – me listening to radio free Europe being in Poland, how good it is in America, money hanging from trees just waiting to be picked up. When I was a little boy, I was just listening to radio free from Washington. And finally, I am in America. Well, one thing after the other. Now I’m sitting here in Florida enjoying this beautiful paradise weather and thinking. If that had never happened, I would never have this movie. And now, having this movie, it may lead to a Broadway play, it may lead to a book. And now, after that, it would be time for me to say, goodbye.” - Jan Lewandowski
- 1942 – Jan was born in Bydgoszcz, Nazi-controlled Poland, grew up under Soviet Union
- 1958 - Studied vocal, piano at Conservatory of Music, Gdansk and sang in the Operetta
- 1958 - First public performance, Cupid in Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld”
- 1962 - signed a contract, appeared with Polish celebrities in Syrena Theater, Warsaw
- 1970 - Melody Druzy Review. Sang in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia
- 1972 - Began to tour in North America in polish church halls across Canada and U.S.
- 1979/80 – Jan immigrated to the United States to seek a better life and become famous
- 1981 – Married Rhonda, Junior Miss Sunny-brook PA Pageant, met at Cancer Telethon
- 1984 – Jan Lewan Orchestra began playing as a group in 1984 through 2002
- 1984 – President Reagan gave remarks at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pa. Jan Lewan was MC and sang the Polish National Anthem for President Reagan and 120,000 people on September 11, 1984
- 1986 – Jan Lewan Orchestra performed at Trump Castle in October 1986
- 1986 – After performing for special invents at Trump Castle, Barbra Sima, that time Director of Hi roles (players) and special events engaged Jan to be a promoter of the Polish festivals at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Jan played here and organized the festivals a few times a year through 2002
- 1988 – 2001 - sold unregistered securities to over 400 investors in 21 states
- 1990– Jan hosted his own Television show with his orchestra for 7 years at the Fox-affiliated station in Scranton, PA. The show aired between 1990-1997
- 1992 – Jan Lewan Orchestra performed with Utica Symphony Orchestra on January 16
- 1992 – Jan Lewan Orchestra performed at Lincoln Center, New York on October 25
- 1992 – The Pennsylvania Securities Commission ordered Jan to stop offering the investments, but he continued to sell unregistered promissory notes.
- 1995 – Lewan's album, “Jan Lewan and His Orchestra,” nominated for Grammy
- 1998 – Wife Rhonda crowned Mrs. Pennsylvania, later stripped of the crown when an investigation revealed the Judges’ scores were altered. Held in Lancaster, Pa, May 1998
- 2001 – Jan Lewan Orchestra devastated by the deaths of two musicians in bus crash on January 26, 2001 along Interstate 95 in South Carolina. The crash killed accordion player Tom Karas and trombonist John Stabinsky and left son Daniel hospitalized in critical condition.
- 2002 – Jan Lewan’s store in Hazleton, went on the auction block after filing for bankruptcy
- 2004 – Incarcerated in the James T. Vaughn Federal Prison Center located in Smyrna, Delaware after being arrested for defrauding 400 people in 21 states of $5 million dollars
- 2004 – Cellmate stabbed Jan in the neck and back with a razor after only two months
- 2007 – TV documentary “Mystery of the Polka King” was released
- 2009 – Released from prison in May, started 3 years of probation, paying restitution
- 2009 – Jan, Rhonda divorced after an estrangement, 28 years of marriage (1981-2009)
- 2009 – Documentary film “The Man Who Would Be Polka King” was released
- 2010 – Organized a reunion concert at the J. J. Ferrara Performing Arts Center in Hazleton with former orchestra musicians, his daughter Amber and son, Daniel
- 2012 – Relocated from Hazleton, Pa to West Palm Beach to be near son, Daniel
- 2017 – World premiere of the “The Polka King” movie at the Sundance Film Festival
- 2018 – “The Polka King” movie released on Netflix January 12, 2018 starring Jack Black
- 2018 – The Final Tour to Poland with Jan Lewan September 3-15, 2018
- 2018 – Will walk daughter Amber down the aisle in The Poconos on October 14
Editor's Note: In January 2018, Christine Di Stadio spent the day with Jan Lewandowski at his home in West Palm Beach. This article shares the story of his rise and fall in Jan's own words.