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 catalog; 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. A classic Ponzi scheme.
Prosecutors said he defrauded some 400 investors in more than 20 states.
“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.
Eleanore Ciuba, 87, of Galloway, New Jersey, and her late husband lost tens of thousands of dollars to Lewandowski.
“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.
And he’s hoping “The Polka King” will give the genre itself a boost.