Netflix’s jaunty biopic The Polka King stars Jack Black as Polish charm bomb Jan Lewan, a polka band leader who became infamous for conning friends, fans, and retirees into a $4.5 million Ponzi scheme. Amid Black’s charismatic showmanship, Jenny Slate’s hilarious antics as Jan’s beauty queen wife, bus crashes, pope visits and more, it’s easy to assume director Maya Forbes (Infinitely Polar Bear) and her co-writer Wally Wolodarksy are playing fast and loose with the facts. So, how much of Netflix’s The Polka King is actually true? Let’s break it down.
The self-proclaimed Polka King
Polish immigrant Jan Lewan (formerly Jan Lewandowski) was once beloved by the people of Hazelton, Pennsylvania. There, he owned a local giftshop and fronted a popular polka band. He was seen as a “a showman supreme”, “the Polish prince” and “ruler of the greatest Polka empire, Northeast Pennsylvania ever saw.” A press release for The Man Who Would Be Polka King, the 2009 documentary on which The King of Polka is based, described his allure and crimes thusly:
“Like Bernie Madoff in sequins, Lewan built his fortune on an elaborate Ponzi scheme. Charming and bubbling over with energy, he offered his fans a complete polka lifestyle, from concerts and ethnic trinkets, to tours of Europe and even access to the ultimate Polish celebrity, Pope John Paul II. The mostly elderly crowd was more than happy to turn over their life savings to invest in what seemed like a thriving business. So when it all came crashing down, polka fans everywhere were left scratching their heads, wondering how it all went so wrong.”
In The Man Who Would be Polka King, Lewan’s grown son Daniel Lewan admits, “There were donations made by the tour group. But not in that sense. Many times my dad didn’t donate a penny and got an audience, and then there were times that he did. I mean, the world is filled with business.”
Beauty Queen Marla Lewan
In real life, Lewan’s wife’s name was not Marla, but Rhonda. In The Man Who Would Be Polka King, she recalls falling for the “ethnic entertainer,” when they met at a telethon when she was a junior in high school. “I was infatuated! He had charm, sophistication. Such a classy entertainer with that accent.” Jenny Slate repeats all of the above when playing “Marla” in The Polka King.
That Grammy Nomination?
True! Between 1986 and 2009, the Grammys had a “Best Polka Album” category. And in 1995, Jan Lewan was nominated for the album, Jan Lewan and His Orchestra. But he lost to Walter Ostanek Band’s Music and Friend. Plus, Lewan and Rhonda did meet Tom Jones and Judy Tenuta. The doc also has pictures of them with Boys II Men.
“I was never nobody! I was always Marla.”
The dry-cleaner scene where an old schoolmate shades Marla with “I knew you when you were nobody” is based on a real incident. Rhonda recalls that moment in The Man Who Would Be Polka King, saying, “What am I now? I’m still Rhonda.”
After the Grammy Awards, Rhonda tired of being seen only as Jan’s wife. “I was 35 years old,” she told the documentarians, “I needed to get my life back.” So she entered the Mrs. Pennsylvania pageant. And yes, she did “actually go to Florida to get a bathing suit.”
The look of the Polka King’s world.
I grew up about a few hours away from Hazelton, Pennsylvania. And let me tell you watching The King of Polka felt like going home. Despite the fact that the film was shot in Rhode Island, Forbes, Wolodarksy and company did a hell of a job depicting the feel of this Pennsylvania in set dressing, wardrobe, Polish culture, and even Marla’s overzealous eyeshadow.
The beauty pageant scandal marked Lewan’s downfall
The shocking allegations that Lewan fixed the 1998’s Mrs. Pennsylvania pageant spooked investors into demanding their money back, which precipitated the beginning of the end for his scheme. The Lewans did go on a local talk show to address the matter, where he flatly denied it. For her part, Mrs. Lewan told the press, “I was an unwitting pawn in this alleged deception.”
Five years later, it was determined Rita Roley was the rightful winner. But it seemed unlikely she’d ever see the trophy, three-piece luggage set and a camcorder awarded that day. Roley told Lancaster Online, “I just wanted to go down on the books as the winner. This has pretty much given me closure.” She did add, “We’re certainly going to try (to get the prizes). She still has everything. She always refused to give it up.”
In the doc, Rhonda showed off the trophy, crown, and sash. She offered some advice to Roley, “Get on with your life. Get over it.”
There Is No “Mickey Pizzazz.”
It seems like Jason Schwartzman’s role is an amalgamation of people, though perhaps chiefly Chaco, who spoke frankly with the documentary’s team about Lewan’s brags about investments and curious ventures. There is no mention in the doc of the accordion player sleeping with Lewan’s mother-in-law. However, Daniel Lewan puts forth in the doc that the two “got together” to spread a whisper campaign that scared more people into pulling out money from his father’s companies. It is generally agreed that Rhonda’s mom “hated” Lewan.
The bus accident was even worse than The Polka King depicts.
In 2001, Lewan’s son Daniel did suffer critical injuries in the crash. Cosmopolitan Review noted, “(Jan Lewan) cradled his son on the floor of the bus, holding his bloodied head, overwcome [sic] with guilt about taking him out of school to tour.” Daniel reflects in the doc, “Everything but death. That’s what happened to me.”
What The King of Polka left out was two members of the band, trombone player John Stabinsky and accordion player Thomas Karas, died in that crash. Also, Lewan claimed that much of his investor paperwork was destroyed in the accident, using the accident as an excuse to delay paying back his investors. “I honestly don’t buy it,” Chaco said. “How much blood did you have to pour out on those books to make them not legible to read?”
Only 5 years in jail!
Lewan declared bankruptcy, liquidated his assets, plead guilty, and all he got for fleecing over 400 investors across 22 states for nearly five million dollars was five years in prison. But it wasn’t easy time served.
Was Lewan shivved in the neck?
Yes. For his first three years behind bars, Lewan was sent to a maximum security prison in Delaware. This is an unusual occurrence for white collar criminals, which might explain why Lewan was attacked. He said his cellmate sliced his neck “from ear to ear” over an untrue “rumor.” In the doc, William Winchester, a former inmate who met Lewan in prison, said, “There was a false statement that he was in for rape of a child. If it’s anything to do with a child, somebody’s going to get you.”
Despite a horrific wound, Lewan survived, though he lost some of his hearing and suffers numbness on one side of his body as a result of the razor attack.
The parking lot confrontation is based on real comments.
Lewan’s victims had little sympathy when asked about this near-fatal attack. They laughed and said his attacker “should of finished the job,” “should have gone all the way around (his neck)” and “The guy didn’t go deep enough.” However, they said it to the documentary crew, not a defensive mother-in-law. In The Man Who Would Be Polka King, it’s not Rhonda’s mother, but Rhonda who defends Lewan in response, saying, “Nobody put a gun to their head. No one pushed them. He thought it would all work too.”
What happened to Marla/Rhonda?
Bustle did some digging. She divorced Jan, and in 2010 married his former bandmate Steve Saive, who was driving the bus on the night of the fateful crash. (Steve Saive is also the name of the poster of the above pope video.) However, Rhonda seems to be on good terms with Lewan. At the end of the doc, she cries while saying, “I pity him so much, because he didn’t mean to hurt anybody.” In January of 2017, she attended The Polka King’s Sundance premier alongside him.
How about that Polka rap?
As portrayed, Lewan learned about rap in prison, and decided to attempt a genre mash-up. “In a song you have chorus that just repeats same words,” Lewandowski said, “But if you add rap to polka, you can replace the chorus and move the story along, developing it more.”
Below is Lewan performing “Rappin’ Polka” in Hazelton in the fall of 2010.
Lewan still denies wrong-doing.
Regarding the beauty pageant bribe accusation, he’s said, “I didn’t even want her in that pageant. I needed her in the business.” And as to the Ponzi scheme, he’s said, “I believe to this day that I could have made it” if the pageant hadn’t lost him investors and the bus accident hadn’t brought a swift and costly end to the band’s tour.
Lewan says he intends to make amends.
Since his release in 2009 he has said, “I have paid my time. Now I pay off the restitution.” In 2010, when he returned to performing, Lewan told Citizen’s Voice, “Perhaps I make it. God knows. Even if I make a little bit, at least I try.”