Genya Ravan, 'original Madonna,' has life reborn onstage

Posted on Feb 2 2016 - 7:01pm by
Genya Ravan (left) and director Chris Henry discuss the staging of "Rock and Roll Refugee," a play about Ravan's life.Russ Rowland

Genya Ravan (left) and director Chris Henry discuss the staging of “Rock and Roll Refugee,” a play about Ravan’s life.

Trailblazing rock artist and Holocaust survivor Genya Ravan can remember her first kiss very clearly, more than half a century later.

The pool at Pitt Park on the Lower East Side was drained in the winter, a high-walled concrete basin perfect to hide away from the often dangerous happenings in the neighborhood, which at the time was a conglomerate of recently transplanted immigrants.

It was there that a Puerto Rican boy named Coldorado broke away from his gang to “stick his tongue in my mouth,” Ravan remembers.

“I thought, ‘what the hell,'” she says now, laughing. “But I went back to the park every day looking for that kiss again.”

Ravan, a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to the Lower East side with her parents in 1947, formed the first successful all-female rock and roll band.Jason Kempin/Getty Images for CBGB Festival

Ravan, a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to the Lower East side with her parents in 1947, formed the first successful all-female rock and roll band.

A 75-year-old Ravan has no shortage of raucous stories to share once she begins reminiscing, some more harrowing than others. But all of them play a part in shaping the life of this strong, feisty, hilariously candid woman who founded Goldie and the Gingerbreads in 1962 — the first successful all-female rock band that is featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and is only now experiencing a rebirth of her extensive body of work.

Her story of resilience and reconciliation, from Holocaust survivor to a singer touring with the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds, is being brought to life onstage in “Rock and Roll Refugee,” a Royal Family production that premieres on February 2nd.

“I’m not a superstar,” Ravan makes sure to clarify. “But everybody knows who I am.”

Director Christine Henry chose to focus on Ravan’s adolescence in the staging, from her arrival on the Lower East Side through Ellis Island to the moment her singing career begins in a smoky nightclub, the result of an impulsive dare from her older sister.

What happens in between those bookends of her life is at times difficult to fathom.

Rivington Street and the surrounding Lower East side neighborhood was a haven for refugees in the 1950s, and Ravan’s family landed there after fleeing concentration camps.

Much was lost on the journey. Two brothers dead and rarely mentioned by her mother and father. At Ellis Island, the Zelkovicz family name was stripped from them like tattered clothes. Genyusha (Ravan’s original first name) became Goldie and a new identity was born on the brink of a fresh start.

But nothing came easy. The beautiful parts of a diverse neighborhood — the delicious smells, the wide array of ethnicities — were often overshadowed by the extreme poverty in which the family lived. Ravan recalls nights sitting on the fire escape to avoid the heat of a cramped apartment, doing nude “cheesecake” modeling to support herself and her parents, the inability to make a $ 35 a month rent.

“I have to get really mad when people say, ‘I had a f—ed up childhood and that’s why I turned out to be a robber,'” Ravan says. “I found another way to make a living.”

Music was her lone escape from the many abuses she endured — the slaps from her hard-nosed, religious father, the verbal abuse from a mother who had lost so much in Poland, the sexual abuse from an upstairs neighbor who made her swear to secrecy.

Sitting with her ear pressed against the side of a radio for hours at a time, those sounds fast became a language to Ravan, of lyrics and hushed swear words that her mother never understood.

“My parents never spoke English, so f— was a really good word to use in the house, because they didn’t know what it meant,” she says, the thick New York accent aged with wisdom dripping from her voice.

A resentment towards her parents grew inside Ravan until ultimately her father’s drinking habits and mother’s incessant cleaning were too much to bear.

After marrying the family’s preferred “nice, Jewish boy” at 16 years old, Ravan returned the ring and ran off to California with a Harley Davidson driver named Ralph.

“I met a guy whose name was Ralph, jumped on his bike and started my life,” Ravan says, reciting the first line of one of her songs.

It was a decidedly rock and roll lifestyle — in such stark contrast to the life she built at 202 Rivington Street — quite literally fraught with sex, drugs and rock and roll. As she made a name for herself with the Gingerbreads and then later with “Ten Wheel Drive,” she also battled alcohol addiction and spent time in AA. But her music was always startlingly realistic, a poignant tribute to her real life experiences.

“She took all this s— and turned it into art,” Henry says. “She was the original Madonna. She paved the way for Lady Gaga. She was both. She was a performer and a musician. There was so much depth to everything she did.”

Madonna performs at the opening night of her Rebel Heart Tour. Rich Fury/Rich Fury/Invision/AP

Madonna performs at the opening night of her Rebel Heart Tour.

Enlarge 022215110448 John Shearer/John Shearer/Invision/AP

Lady Gaga performs at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015.

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Genya Ravan paved the path for strong female musicians to come like Madonna and Lady Gaga.

Ravan still sings at various nightclubs in the city, but her rock and roll career is largely behind her.

As for 202 Rivington Street, Ravan has been back to see what’s become of it. She says it’s like a movie set — her block is the only remaining relic of the past. Everything that surrounds it is gentrified, brand new.

It’s much like Ravan herself, a living reminder of the 1960s and 70s era of rock and roll, with a story that is soulful and heartbreaking all at once. And now there’s a chance to revisit her body of work, to relive the career of an original sex symbol, a role model for female musicians to come.”

“My life has always been an open book, baby,” Ravan said. “I tell it the way it is.”

“Rock and Roll Refugee” premieres Feb. 2 at the Royal Family Performing Arts Space in Times Square. Tickets are $ 18.

schiusano@nydailynews.com

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