You Can’t Trust Anybody

Yesterday I was sad; today I’m disillusioned. And I blame Netfilx.

Maybe this second incident would have rolled right off my back if I didn’t watch the man Who Would be Polka King last night.

‘THE MAN WHO WOULD BE POLKA KING is an irreverent look at the rise and fall of Grammy-nominated polka music superstar Jan Lewan, whose defection from Poland to Pennsylvania led to fame, fortune and an international Polka Empire. But when Lewan’s empire collapsed under a cloud of scandal, the polka world was stunned to learn of the greatest polka-related financial crime in history.”

Throwing hankies to the crowd to wave in exhuberance during the dancing. Free advice: never get between a senior citizen polka fan and a Jan Lewan hanky.

Most on-line references call this film fun or light-hearted but this was a real tragedy. You’d have to understand how big polka is (was?) in North Eastern Pennsylvania to get how big this guy was. He was a polka superstar with a camp following that could rival the Grateful Dead and a wardrobe like Liberace. His business savvy didn’t end there – he did a big business with his Polish Gift shop, had an international travel company and orchestrated a ponzi-style investment scheme to the tune of $10 million. The hankies were free.

People were charmed by him. I can absolutely see how they trusted him enough to willingly invest hard earned savings with him. This man was so charismatic that even after the film was over and I knew his dark side as well as his light one, I was wishing that I had gone on a bus trip to Poland with his travel company. He was with the busloads of senior citizen polka fans every minute, made sure they all had a good time, filled them with Polish vodka and keilbasi and took them to meet Lech Walesa. On the tours to Italy, he took them to meet the Polish Pope John Paul II.

One fascinating side trip in this documentary is when Jan’s wife Rhonda won the Mrs. Pennsylvania contest and it turned out the whole thing was rigged. She actually placed last but someone changed the scores on the paper ballots the judges filled out so that she had the highest score and was crowned the winner. When the fraud was discovered, she was stripped of her title but she refused to give back the crown, the trophy and the prizes. It was never revealed who did the ballot rigging.

This is a photo of the back of my actual Jan Lewan t-shirt. The front had a big Polish Falcon on it, like the ones people are wearing at 0:43 in the movie trailer at the first link.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I had a Jan Lewan t-shirt which I blogged about before. We were at a local church bazaar I guess it was in the early 80s and his band was playing on the little trailer/stage. When the music was over,  my husband handed over $10 and got it for me. $10 was about twice the going rate for a t-shirt of this type at the time. I loved that t-shirt.

In the end, he pleaded guilty to the charges of selling unregistered securities, got a 5 year sentence  and was sent to a maximum security prison in Delware for his white-collar crime. He stuck out from the other convicts who were mostly vicious killers and the rumor went around he was there for child molestation. After a few years, a cellmate acted on the false information and slashed Jan’s throat ear to ear. Jan survived. The documentary cuts to several mild looking grannies who expressed their satisfaction with that, only wishing that the slasher had finished the job.

He did the full 5 years and he’s out now doing the polka band circuit again. It was a tragedy for everyone involved.

After that I felt like I needed something pure sweetness and light, so I watched Goodnight We Love You which is a documentary centering around Phyllis Diller’s last live performance. Who doesn’t love Phyllis Diller? She comes across as intelligent, logical and non-bitchy. Overall, it was very a very positive profile and my cockles were warmed.

The film cut back and forth between the last performance, Phyllis’s from beginner to lady comic trailblazer and glimpses into her real life. In one scene, the camera follows her into the very neatly organized wardrobe room in her home and she points out the shoes, the wigs, the glittering stage gowns. The she points out the shelving filled with hatboxes that were solid pink on the lid and bottom and clear plastic on the sides. “I invented those” she says ” so I can see which hat is inside’.

So I wake up early and as I’m puttering around I have the TV on playing an old I Love Lucy rerun. Typical episode – Lucy bought a new hat, Ricky flips out about the cost, tries to prove to her she already has too many hats and goes to the closet to pull out the many hats stored there. I took a photo of that scene:

Oh, Phyllis! How could you?

And so Phyllis Diller is a self-aggrandizing liar. Now if you can’t trust the admirable Phyllis Diller, what hope is there to trust at all? Phyllis was 87-ish when the documentary was made so maybe she forgot that she didn’t invent them. But it just breaks the heart, does it not?

I am really bummed out by this.

4 thoughts on “You Can’t Trust Anybody”

  1. How old was Phyllis when Lucy was being broadcast? Maybe she DID invent them, and Lucy loved them so much she used them in her show?

  2. I never saw a clear plastic hat box while being raised in the “hats for every occasion” generation. It could have been a boutique hatter’s personal preference to house her toppers in the boxes depicted on ILLucy’s show.

    We’re talking ’50s/60s when plastic was still a highend item and even plastic jewelery was expensive.

  3. A few years ago I was watching an old rerun of Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life.” Grainy, black and white film. One of the contestants was a young Phyllis Diller. I had thought she was a guest star so your article made me look her up and that appearance was her big break!

    She also is an accomplished pianist.

    I looked up patents for see-through hat boxes, but there are a bunch and I got worn out looking. Of the ones I found, none carried her real name (Phyllis Ada Driver) or her stage name.

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