CALL IT THE JAN LEWAN PHENOMENON. THE POPULAR POLKA MUSIC BAND LEADER DRAWS
Thursday, June 17, 1999 Page: 1A
THOUSANDS OF EAGER, OFTEN ELDERLY FANS TO EVERY SHOW, AND THRILLS THE CROWD BY
THROWING HIS TRADEMARK HANDKERCHIEFS.
Call it the Jan Lewan phenomenon. The popular polka music band leader draws
thousands of eager, often elderly fans to every show, and thrills the crowd by
throwing his trademark handkerchiefsRoyal adulation for the Polka King
By KEVIN HOFFMAN
Times Leader Staff Writer
The "Polka King of Pennsylvania" shimmers in his sequined jumpsuit, sending
his legion of gray-haired groupies into a frenzy.
Goose bumps rise with the blare of the trumpets of the Jan Lewan Orchestra.
Jan's brassy, campy charisma- which has won fans from philanthropists to
the pope to the androgynous, costumed genie on stilts- flows from the stage.
At the Polish Festival held recently at Trump's Taj Mahal in Atlantic City,
N.J., the Polka King was hard to resist. "The love just shines out of his eyes
when he starts singing," said Leona Kreisl, 77, a longtime fan.
A consummate capitalist born in communist Poland and an international,
Grammy-nominated singing star residing in the small city of Hazleton, Jan
Lewan is awash in contradictions.
On stage he strikes poses like a teen idol for an audience of senior
citizens. Off stage he hawks amber jewelry and ethnic dolls at his gift shop,
runs a tour company and plays husband to deposed Mrs. Pennsylvania Rhonda
Is this guy for real?
Before the first of four shows at the Polish Festival, Jan's dressing room
was deserted, except for two fake tombstones bracketing a pair of
lipstick-smudged plastic butt-cheeks- props Rhonda used the day before when
she dressed up as the grim reaper to celebrate Jan's 55th birthday.
Inquiries as to Jan's whereabouts were met with shrugs until Hear-Say, a
"genie" with long nails and garish makeup, strode in on stilts. The nine-year
casino veteran wore jewelry crafted in Jan's "Amber Factory" and boasted that
Jan had written the polka "Your Wish is My Command" for him.
"Jan oversees everything," Hear-Say gushed. "Unlike so many other
performers, he's a hands-on type of guy."
At that moment, Jan had his hands on his gift shop merchandise. The Polish
Festival is annually one of the most lucrative weekends for him and he
expected to rake in thousands of dollars selling amber and coal jewelry,
ethnic dolls and costumes, and videos, CDs and cassettes of his performances.
Nearby, Henry Kreisl wore a bolo tie bejeweled with a piece of amber the
size of a fist. "It's lightweight and it's great for dancing," Henry said.
"And the women come over and touch it all the time, real close-like," Leona
The Kreisls met the Polka King in 1982 in Hunter Mountain, N.Y. Henry took
one look and resolved to recruit the master showman for an American Cancer
Society fund-raiser in Hazleton that the couple was sponsoring.
There, Jan met his wife, Rhonda, who had just won the Miss Sunnybrook
beauty contest. The tenor picked the 17-year-old beauty queen out of the crowd
and serenaded her with "Oh Solo Mio."
Overwhelmed by the 37-year-old Polka King, Rhonda posed with him for photos
he planned to use in an upcoming album. Weeks later she found herself on the
phone with him.
"He called me and asked if I wanted to do something crazy," Rhonda said.
Calling from Manville, N.J., Jan asked Rhonda to meet him halfway between
there and Hazleton, in Delaware Water Gap.
She obliged, but found herself waiting three hours. Jan, a bumbling Prince
Charming, had gotten lost.
"I don't know why I waited," Rhonda said. "I guess it was meant to be."
Fans cherish trademark hankies
Backstage on Saturday afternoon, Jan waits to be introduced for his first
show. He's nervous about a buffet table from a mock-Polish wedding that will
create a buffer between him and his hankie-hungry fans.
Audience participation is key to Jan's shows and when the hankies come out
the whirling crowd becomes a mob. Over the course of the weekend he'll toss
out 500 of his trademark handkerchiefs- roughly one for every 10 people in
attendance- but abundance doesn't make them any less valuable to the faithful.
On stage, as Jan grabs a stack of handkerchiefs and begins to separate
them, the arms of the crowd stretch toward him.
He crumples each cloth into an aerodynamic ball and dabs his forehead to
bestow each hankie with official Polka King sweat.
A woman beckons and he bends over to receive a kiss on the cheek. She gets
a hankie. A second woman, Regina Kujawa of Long Island, N.Y., pleads with Jan
above the orchestral din and is rewarded with two hankies. "I need two when I
cry," she said.
"I enrich the ladies," Jan had explained earlier. "Of course I'm always
going to choose the pretty ones," he said. Then, grinning, he added, "But
they're all pretty."
Sam Markell of New Jersey scored a hankie as well. Asked why he craved it,
he said it wasn't for himself. He got it for a friend who recently suffered a
There are never enough hankies for everyone.
A man began wrestling a woman for one. The senior citizens staged a
vigorous tug of war until the man released his grip, blinking as if he just
came out of a trance.
As another hankie fell short of its target, Jan's backstage fears came
true. The coveted cloth fluttered to the buffet table. Three gray-haired women
dove to retrieve it, collapsing on the table and shattering a champagne glass.
One of the women got cut and bled on a white napkin.
The dance floor had become a pit of wrinkled gladiators. Jan slowed the set
to restore calm.
As Philadelphia's Polish-American String Band strutted to the stage, Jan
and his orchestra retired to a side room to pose for publicity photos.
Stephen Kaminski, a saxophone and clarinet player, sat to Jan's immediate
left. Drenched in sweat, Kaminski wiped his forehead and cheeks with his bare
"Nobody has an extra hankie?" he asked in disbelief.
Papal connection endures
Much of Jan's history resembles a storybook. He was dubbed the Polka King
by none other than "Polish Prince" Bobby Vinton, known for the
polka-influenced hit "Melody of love."
"He said, `I am the Polish Prince, but you are the king,' " Jan proudly
Born and raised in communist Poland, Jan rarely saw his parents, who worked
multiple jobs. His father was a professor and also helped Jan's mother run a
government-owned milk bar. They hustled other businesses on the side to eke
out a comfortable living, but Jan saw them only on weekends.
Jan has imitated their lifestyle with his 15-hour days and multi-industry
entrepreneurship, but with one important difference: His family never leaves
his side. He has even enlisted his 14-year-old son, Daniel, to play trumpet in
the Jan Lewan Orchestra.
To avoid becoming a soldier in his homeland, Jan fulfilled his mandatory
military service by joining a singing and dancing group in the army. He
entertained officials and attended drama school- training as an opera singer-
and later joined a theater group touring North America.
Jan had planned to defect while abroad. He had even purchased a car,
claiming he planned to take it home to native Poland. Tailing the tour bus
into a traffic circle in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Jan knew it was now or
never. The bus veered out of the circle. Jan stayed in.
"I went around and around and around. I still wasn't sure I was doing the
Two weeks later, he met the man who would become Pope John Paul II. Then a
Roman Catholic cardinal, Karol Wojtyla and Jan drank beer together at the
Montros Motor Inn in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
That began a lifelong association that has allowed Jan to bring more than
3,000 Americans to meet the pope. Henry Kreisl was one of them.
"He took me right up to see the Holy Father. (Jan) said, `Your Holy Father,
this is Henry Kreisl.' Tears came out of my eyes. I can't believe he did that
for me," Kriesl said.
Staying close to his fans
During the Atlantic City weekend it became obvious that Jan can't say "No"
to his fans. Just seconds before his last performance, as he fielded questions
from a reporter and made last-minute changes to the show, a woman patiently
waited to pour her heart out to the Polka King.
"I never tire of that. I love people," he said.
His goal is "to show that Polish Americans should be very proud." To this
end he works to popularize polka, sells ethnic merchandise and organizes tours
to his homeland.
It's a symbiotic relationship: Fans buy Jan's many products- sometimes when
they don't really need them, he admits- and in exchange he caters to their
every whim, providing one-stop shopping and an opportunity to bask in his
"I'm good to them, they're good to me, and everything is beautiful."
The Times Leader/PETE G. WILCOX
Jan Lewan tosses a handkerchief into the crowd during the opening number of
a show. The fans of the Polka King of Pennsylvania fight for one of the
kerchiefs, breaking a champagne glass and trading elbows.
Lewan performs during his show at the Polish Festival at the Taj Mahal in
Atlantic City, N.J.
Jan Lewan prepares to take the stage at Trump's Taj Mahal. He says he
`enriches the ladies' with his music.
The Times Leader/PETE G. WILCOX
At right, fans cheer on Jan Lewan at his show at the Taj Mahal. Above,
Lewan sings to fans as they plead for one of his trademark handkerchiefs.
Henry and Leona Kreisl, longtime friends of Jan Lewan who were instrumental
in getting him to come to Hazleton, dance the polka at the Taj Mahal.
A little mutual admiration never hurts in polka circles. Jan Lewan passes
members of the opening band Polka Family as he heads for the ballroom.
Jan gets help in his dressing room before the singing begins.