The Polka King learned to rap in prison.
With hard work and luck, I made it really big,
Playing my polka music at every major gig.
Everyone in Cheboygan was singing my polka songs
but I never realized things could go so very wrong.
Jan Lewan, a Polish immigrant now living in Palm Springs, became the king of American polka music in the 1980s and ’90s.
Along the way, he picked up a few other titles.
Grammy nominee, millionaire, friend of Pope John Paul II, con man, convicted felon.
And more recently, he became the subject of a Netflix movie starring Jack Black called “The Polka King,” released in January and based on a 2007 documentary, “The Man Who Would Be Polka King.”
The movie, which Lewan says is “90 percent true,” traces Lewan’s life as he wrestles the American dream of money and fame into reality, before it collapses in a troika of polka, Ponzi scheme and prison.
I trusted in people, never thought to learn the law
And this was my mistake and led to my downfall
“If a Hollywood screenwriter had pitched me this story I would thrown him out of my office,” said the movie’s producer, Oscar- and Emmy-nominated David Permut, in an email. “When I saw the documentary I actually watched it between my fingers laughing hysterically. I couldn’t believe the insanity of what had happened.”
You can say I did it all, they wanted to see me fall
I’ve been locked behind the walls but still I standing tall.
I lived ‘La vida loca’ but now I rapping polka.
In Jan Lewan’s small bedroom in the townhouse he shares with two long-time friends, he proudly shows off walls of photos from the good times in the 1980s and ’90s. He’s trying to keep up appearances in a navy blazer, whose pocket square matches his blue and red checked shirt.
“I cut it from the back of my shirt,” he confesses conspiratorially.
There’s Lewan with Tom Jones at the 1995 Grammy Awards, when Lewan was nominated in the now-defunct polka category. (He didn’t win.) He’s in Las Vegas with George Burns and, in another photo, with Wayne Newton, who came to one of Lewan’s Vegas shows.
He said he’s sung for four presidents: Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Sr. and Trump; five if you count the former Polish president, Lech Walesa.
He played Trump’s former Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City and has played piano for events at Mar-a-Lago, he said.
“You are my Polish brother,” says a framed note from Black, whom Lewan tutored over Skype to fine tune Black’s Polish accent.
“He did it perfectly,” said Lewan. “He sounded just like me.”
Despite his life’s spectacular implosion in 2001, Lewan, now 76, can’t quit the dream that drove him for decades. He’s hoping to leverage exposure from the movie into a modest comeback.
“Jack Black put me back in the picture again,” he said. “I’m in talks to perform in Atlantic City and Vegas.”
America, he fervently hopes, is the land of second chances.
If Jan Lewan’s life was a rollercoaster ride, it would climb higher than would seem possible and drop lower.
He was born Jan Lewandowski in Nazi-occupied Poland, then grew up under Communist rule. Classically trained, he attained minor celebrity behind the Iron Curtain, singing for Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, performing opera and recording albums in Polish and Russian.
But Soviet bloc fame was small potatoes compared to stardom in the West.
“I’d listen to Radio Free Europe and thought when I came to America, the money would be hanging on trees and all you have to do is learn to pick it up,” he said. “I didn’t know anything.”
While on tour in Canada in 1978, he slipped away, eventually making his way to the United States, where he was introduced to what was for him a new kind of music.
“I’d never heard polka before. Polka was born in the U.S.,” said Lewan, “with some Polonaised English words.”
Ambitious and adaptable, he immediately understood the bouncy strains of polka made people happy, especially the descendents of Eastern European immigrants in the Northeast and Midwest. They loved Lewan’s enthusiasm and heavily accented English.
He put together larger and larger bands with accordions, keyboards and horn sections. Jan (pronounced “Yahn”) was the showman out front in a spangled suit, urging the crowd to dance and sing along. The Jan Lewan Orchestra had 64 players when it performed at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City’s Lincoln Center, according to its founder. He had his own radio show.
Lewan had become the star he’d always known he should be, living his personal motto: If you work, if you believe, you will succeed.
In Hazelton, Pennsylvania, he met his wife, Rhonda (called Marla in the movie, played by Jenny Slate) and had a son and a daughter. As a side business, he began hosting tours to Poland, where Polish-Americans could discover their family roots.
He bought Polish souvenirs at rock bottom Soviet prices that sold so well in Hazelton that he built a two-story store (in the movie, it’s shown as a small gift shop) to market the dolls, native costumes, Polish crystal and amber jewelry at U.S. prices, making fantastic profits from his fans.
He broadened his tour itineraries to include Italy, where he promised his clients an audience with his Polish countryman, John Paul II.
In the movie version, Lewan hands Vatican officials a suitcase of cash in order to see the Pope.
Lewan said it never happened. Instead, he said he and the people on his tour took up a collection for the Pope’s Papal Foundation.
“As a thank you, we had an audience,” he said.
He continued taking tour groups to see Pope John Paul II more than 20 times, always presenting the Pope with a giant spray of red roses.
In 1986, John Koterba and his father were two of the Polish-Americans on one of Lewan’s early trips. Koterba, a Palm Springs videographer, taped much of the tour and sold the tapes to his fellow tourists.
“It was a great business for me and Jan liked it because it was good advertising,” said Koterba, who has since accompanied Lewan on 72 European trips, taping every one.
For the past six years, Koterba and his girlfriend, Jo McGinnis, have rented Lewan a room in their quadriplex condo.
“They’re like my parents,” jokes Lewan of the younger couple.
For a while, money did seem to grow on trees.
In the 1980s, Lewan started selling unregistered securities to his fans, many of them Slavic-American senior citizens. He issued more than $2 million in unsecured promissory notes, guaranteeing a 12, then a 20 percent return.
Monthly dividends were paid for by new investors in a classic Ponzi scheme fashion, which fell apart when the investments dried up.
Lewan claims that growing up under Communism, he wasn’t sure how capitalism worked and didn’t understand that what he was doing was illegal until it was too late.
The 1998 Mrs. Pennsylvania pageant marked the beginning of the unraveling.
His wife, Rhonda, won the pageant amidst accusations of vote rigging. Lewan was suspected but never charged.
“I didn’t go there and change the vote, but it raised questions. People began to ask for their money back,” Lewan said.
To raise money, Lewan began touring with his band. They were headed to play a series of shows in Florida when their trumpet player allegedly fell asleep at the wheel. The Ford van crashed head-on into a bridge column on I-95 in South Carolina. Two band members died and Lewan’s son, Daniel, was critically injured.
When I thought I was at the top, they decided to call the stop
But the crash was the beginning of the end
And I lost two good friends
Lewan stopped working to stay with his son. Angry investors began to panic, asking authorities to help them get their money back, money that Lewan didn’t have.
Within a year, Lewan declared bankruptcy, listing debts of $3.3 million. A grand jury charged him with 57 counts of racketeering, theft, securities fraud and sale of unregistered securities. Federal prosecutors said he bilked people in 21 states out of about $2 million.
In 2002, his store and its contents were auctioned. Lewan says his $3.6 million in inventory would have sold for more than $5 million. Instead, the federal government sold his stock for 10-cents on the dollar.
“I could have used that money to pay restitution,” Lewan claims today.
His lawyer persuaded him to plead guilty in hopes of a two-year sentence.
Instead, in 2003, he got nearly six years.
Next thing I knew they were revoking my bail
And the judge said harshly, you go to jail.
Prison, Lewan believes, saved his life.
One night, a prisoner slashed Lewan’s throat from ear to ear with a homemade knife. The scar is still visible behind his shirt collar.
“But the good news is, in the hospital they found I had two blocked arteries, which would have killed me,” said Lewan, laughing at the coincidence.
His attorney persuaded the prison system to allow surgery to repair the blockages.
“Jail saved my neck by almost severing it,” Lewan said.
While he was in prison, his wife divorced him then ended up marrying the trumpet player who was driving the van the night of the accident.
After he was released in 2009, he stayed in Hazelton for three years, until his daughter, Amber, graduated from high school.
Then he moved to Palm Springs to live with Koterba and McGinnis.
Any money he’s made from the movie or performing goes to pay restitution to those he defrauded, he said.
“I’m really, truly sorry for the people I got into that,” he said. “I will be faithful to my restitution to the end of my life.”
Thanks to the movie, Lewan has a sliver of the spotlight again.
He’s taped an episode of “American Greed” and is waiting for a video crew from Warsaw to tape a program for Polish TV.
“I’m not hiding that I’m guilty,” he said, although one verse of his polka rap casts doubt on his remorse.
The only crime I did commit was wanting to be famous
No one was hurt and I did nothing heinous
Listen to my story, you can tell that I relate
So that you and your loved ones can escape my awful fate.
Most days, Lewan rides his bike around the development’s lake. A big outing is eating breakfast at Bennys on the Beach on the Lake Worth Pier every week.
“It’s all paradise,” he said.
Once a week, he goes to his son’s house to give his grandson piano lessons. Most of the time, it’s enough.
“Let’s face it, I’m 76,” he said. “What is next for me? Maybe I have made my last chapter. Maybe I should not still have dreams.”
But Lewan, the penniless immigrant who sang, “Now I am an American, I am just like you,” can’t help it.
He’d still like one more shot at fame, even if this time the money would go to his victims instead of his pockets.