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. It was a classic Ponzi scheme.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
Lewandowski said he didn't set out to cheat anybody. But he acknowledges he hurt people who had placed their trust in him.
"I don't hide. I did wrong," he said.
Prosecutors said he defrauded about 400 investors in more than 20 states. A federal judge who sentenced him to prison called his conduct "despicable."
More than eight years after his release, Lewandowski is retired and doesn't perform much anymore. He lives off Social Security and gives the occasional piano lesson, barely making a dent in his court-ordered restitution of nearly $5 million — a judgment he has little chance of satisfying.
"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.
"I'd be able to pay a little bit more in restitution," he said. "I want to perform."
Some of his victims aren't exactly thrilled about a comeback or the movie.
Eleanore Ciuba, 87, of Galloway, New Jersey, and her late husband lost tens of thousands of dollars to Lewandowski. She has never forgiven him, calling the disgraced bandleader a "dirty rotten bastard" who doesn't deserve the attention.
"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.
Lewandowski said he's sorry for the people who lost money. Ever upbeat, he shrugs off his critics.
"They don't want to see me happy," he said, "but I am happy right now."
And he's hoping "The Polka King" will give the genre itself a boost.
"The ones who care about the polka are old, and they're not dancing any more," he said. "Now we need a younger generation."