In Netflix's newest original film, The Polka King (writer/director Maya Forbes), America's two greatest traditions finally come together: Financial crimes and polka music. All kidding aside, the film tells the wild true story of Jan Lewan, a charismatic polka musician who served time in federal prison for running a ponzi scheme and swindling his fans out of around $5 million. Along for the ride in the film is his wife, Marla Lewan (Jenny Slate), an interesting character in her own right, who attempts to pursue her own dreams while stepping out from her husband's shadow and ends up caught up in a separate controversy. But where is Marla Lewan now in 2017?
First of all, there is no such person as Marla Lewan — or at least there's no one by that name who relates to the story of Jan Lewan. Jan's wife in real life was named Rhonda, not Marla, as her name was changed for the film. As far as Rhonda Lewan is concerned, she and Jan are no longer married. Although it's unclear when exactly they split up, a 2009 story in Hazleton, Pennsylvania's Standard Speaker by Leslie Richardson notes that Rhonda was estranged from Jan at the time. The article was written about the documentary on which The Polka King is based, The Man Who Would Be Polka King (producer Rebekah Rutkoff), and coincided with Jan's release from prison. In Richardson's piece, Rhonda is quoted as still being supportive of her then-husband — despite their estrangement. "Everyone here has made a mistake," she said at the time. "Everyone has had problems and borrowed money or put something on a credit card. This was just on a bigger scale. It's over."
The year after Jan was released from prison, Rhonda remarried, wedding Steve Saive — the former trumpet player in Jan Lewan's orchestra — in August of 2010, according to the Standard Speaker. Saive had allegedly fallen asleep behind the wheel while driving Lewan's tour bus nine years earlier in 2001, resulting in the crash that killed two members of the orchestra, trombone player John Stabinsky and accordion player Thomas Karas, according to Cecilia Baress of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania'sThe Citizens' Voice. The bus crash abruptly ended Lewan's tour, and is considered a major factor in his faulting on his debts and failing to repay his investors; ultimately leading to his imprisonment. Saive and Lewan remained on good terms after both the accident and the wedding, apparently, as the trumpet player joined Lewan for a reunion concert in 2010. As for Rhonda, she now goes by the name Rhonda Lewan-Saive and resides in Scranton, Pennsylvania, according to her Facebook profile, and also appears to still be friendly with Jan. She attended the premiere of The Polka King at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, where she posed for photos alongside her ex-husband.
Rhonda infamously had a role in her ex-husband's downfall, although indirectly, due to a controversy surrounding her victory in the 1998 Mrs. Pennsylvania pageant. After she won the crown, allegations came flooding in from her competitors that the judges didn't actually rank her as the winner. Charges were filed against four of the pageant's organizers, who were accused of rigging the contest in her favor, and she was forced to give up the crown the following day, according to the Associated Press, via the Los Angeles Times. "I was an unwitting pawn in this alleged deception," she was quoted as saying at the time. Rumors swirled that Jan himself had orchestrated her victory, a charge he denies, but the perception hurt his standing among fans and gave authorities the incentive to look more closely at his business practices, according to Cosmopolitan Review's Vince Chesney.
Marla Lewan, as portrayed by Jenny Slate in The Polka King, may technically be a fictional character, but she is based on the very real Rhonda Lewan-Saive, the former Mrs. Pennsylvania who once upon a time was married to the man known as the Polka King.