Jan Lewan was living the American dream. After emigrating from Poland in the mid-1970s, Lewan was a hotel worker by day, but a one-man show at night, singing and entertaining at church halls and Polish club functions. He settled down in Hazleton, PA, and started performing polka music, eventually forming his own band, the Jan Lewan Orchestra.
By the 1990s, Lewan was one of polka’s biggest stars, drawing thousands of polka fans to concerts and festivals on the East Coast and earning a Grammy nomination in 1995 for Best Polka Album. This video, from a performance at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, shows Lewan at the height of his popularity (and handkerchief-throwing powers):
And then it all unraveled. In January 2001, Lewan’s tour bus crashed on the way to Florida and two musicians — accordionist Tommy Karas and trombonist John Stabinsky — were killed. Lewan’s son Daniel was also seriously injured.
Lewan was also in hot water over dealings with his store in Hazleton where he sold Polish souvenirs. He sold unregistered promissory notes to investors in order to build his business, but the market soured and he failed to repay them. In 2004, he was sentenced to five years in federal prison for bilking investors out of millions of dollars. While in prison, he was nearly killed by an inmate who tried to slash his throat with a razor blade.
Now, a documentary called The Man Who Would Be Polka King tells the story of Jan Lewan’s rise and fall. Here’s the trailer; the film made the rounds at festivals last year, but you can watch the complete film online at Babelgum.
Lewan was released from prison last year and is currently mounting a comeback to rehabilitate his image and pay restitution to the (justifiably angry) investors whose money he lost. He’s also working on a polka-rap fusion with Vanilla Ice which sounds like it could be grounds for another criminal offense…