Back to School for Inspiration : How necessity and compromise turned 'The Iris Stevenson Story'--a drama about a passionately committed Crenshaw High School music teacher--into 'Sister Act 2'

Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

As the end credits on "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit" roll to a close, the producers extend their thanks to Iris Stevenson, whose story, they note, provided the inspiration for the film.

On the face of it, however, Stevenson bears little resemblance to the lounge-singer-turned-nun-impersonator played by Whoopi Goldberg. Nor does the movie, which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, closely parallel Stevenson's life. That a script about a Crenshaw High School music teacher ended up as the sequel to Disney's blockbuster "Sister Act" testifies to the often tortuous path screenplays take wending their way to the screen.

Rewind to May, 1991, when producer Dawn Steel ("Cool Runnings") read a Los Angeles Times article about Stevenson who, with hundreds of other teachers in the L.A. public school system, was about to lose her job. Though Stevenson had three offers the day her layoff notice arrived, she was firing back--publicly and passionately--on behalf of colleagues less fortunate than she. After observing Stevenson in the classroom, Steel made up her mind: "The Iris Stevenson Story" belonged on the screen, and she would be the one taking it there.

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Raised in the projects of Buffalo, N.Y., Iris Stevenson grew up poor. Her father was a blue-collar worker with a considerable, if well-hidden, flair for keyboards. Her mother, who did "day work" cleaning other people's houses, scraped together enough to buy a miniature piano for their daughter. Young Iris was composing at 3, performing at 7 and, from seventh grade on, attended Buffalo's Villa Maria Institute, an 18-student federally funded program for young artists. At 15, Stevenson was awarded a four-year scholarship to Ohio's prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music. After graduation, she continued to play professionally while pursuing a teaching career that brought her to Los Angeles in 1985.

A warm, energetic woman who appears to be in her late 30s (age is the one question she plays close to the vest), Stevenson performed miracles at Crenshaw, a hardscrabble, predominantly black South-Central school with significant Latino and Asian enrollment. The number of students taking choir and band ballooned from 12 to more than 600 today. (Stevenson also teaches classes in keyboards, music theory and practical application of music.) Appearances by the school's 80-member Elite Choir on "The Arsenio Hall Show," a Lou Rawls TV special and HBO's "Chez Whoopi" brought the young singers and their teacher national recognition. Kids who had never ventured beyond the 'hood boarded airplanes for the Caribbean and France, winning the Jamaica Jazz Festival four years in a row and, performing in French, Nice's Worldwide Music Festival in 1992 and 1993.

"What sets Iris Stevenson apart is her success in a system that in no way supports her--with the hardest possible children to convert," says Steel.

Former student Robert Brown is a case in point. "I'd been ripping around the streets, ditching school, adopting a 'don't care' attitude," says the 22-year-old rap group road manager. "Going to Jamaica made me feel like a better person. A lot of this is about self-esteem."

Closer to home, Stevenson also made waves. She spent the second night of the Los Angeles riots in a recording studio, laying tracks for "The City of Fallen Angels"--a song of peace and unity she wrote with L.A. rappers Kid Frost, Young MC and Hen-Gee that received extensive play. At the recent retirement luncheon for Mayor Bradley, the choir's performance of "America the Beautiful" moved the ordinarily cool Gov. Pete Wilson to tears. "The way we sang from our hearts touched his," the teacher recalls. "He embraced me so long, his security people got nervous."

In a climate of domestic and social turmoil, Stevenson provides love and support. No distinction is made between "the lovely and the unlovely," as she puts it. Discipline is tempered by hugs. The children, whom the single, childless Stevenson treats as her own, reciprocate by calling her "Mama."

"According to an African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child," Stevenson says. "That's the feeling I'm trying to create at Crenshaw. Calls to my home wore out four answering machines in the past eight years. The first took only 20 messages. I sometimes get that in an hour."

Valerie Weldon, 17, credits Stevenson with pulling her out of a recent depression. "My grandmother died; my boyfriend went to jail; I was shot in the stomach in a drive-by shooting," she says, drawing an imaginary circle around the point of entry. "Miss Stevenson took me aside and was tough but supportive. Things I can't take from my mother, I take from her."

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When first informed that Disney was interested in basing a film on her life, Stevenson responded with disbelief. "She's not one to pull her own wagon," explains Williena McLemore, one of two full-time volunteers paid out of Stevenson's own pocket. Still, after meeting Steel, Stevenson went with the flow. "Iris believes in that Alcoholics Anonymous saying: 'Let go and let God,' " Steel says. "She's a deeply religious person, a proud 'mother' who expects things to come to her--and the children--just because it's right."

Modesty, in any case, took a back seat when she realized the opportunity laid at her feet. "People are tired of other people trying to be stars," Stevenson says. "That's the Hollywood syndrome. Yet the thrust of my work is to reach people--and millions of them watch movies and TV. I do what I can for my part of the world, but an 'Iris Stevenson Story' could spread the word."

The thought of Goldberg in the lead was also appealing. After observing Stevenson's class in preparation for the choir scenes in the first "Sister Act," Goldberg not only made good on her pledge to put the choir on her TV special to counteract negative images of South-Central, but also donated money with which Stevenson bought a synthesizer, an amplifier and keyboards for the students. Does Stevenson believe that Goldberg--whose romantic escapades and controversial Friars Club roast have dominated recent headlines--gets a bad rap? "Not a bad rap," Stevenson replies. "Just an incomplete one. People see her as a comedian but there's a lot of depth there."

Stevenson shamefacedly admits she's yet to see all of "Sister Act" ("I've started a number of times, but never had time to finish"). Those who have, however, see her there on the screen. Goldberg's performance as a nun-on-the-run who turns a ragtag bunch of sisters into a hip, unified choir holds more than an echo of Stevenson's real-life accomplishments.

"People called Miss Stevenson up and said, 'She got you up and down--she must be a fast learner,' " recalls Alice Cooper, Stevenson's other full-time volunteer. "The (story for the) second 'Sister Act' was inspired by her, but her moves were there in the first one."

Nineteen-year-old Latanya Garbutt, a graduate of Stevenson's class, finds other parallels. Like Sister Mary Robert in "Sister Act," she says, she was inordinately shy. Much as Goldberg's Sister Mary Clarence helped that character to "project," Stevenson got her out of her shell. "She sat me down right next to the piano," says Garbutt, "and pushed me to follow my dream. Now I'm doing demos, backgrounds for artists. She always told me to go for it."

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The story, it seems, is tailor-made for Hollywood: a latter-day "To Sir With Love" or, as Disney saw it, "Stand and Deliver" with a woman. Still, circumstances dictated that the script about Stevenson--"Knocking on Heaven's Door" by Judi Ann Mason--be diverted to another end. Goldberg's late-night talk show and Disney's desire for a 1993 Christmas movie made it necessary to come up with a "Sister Act" sequel fast. Desperately in need of a workable screenplay, the studio alighted on Mason's.

"It was a 'good news/bad news' story for Judi," recalls one Disney insider. "The good news, they told her, is that your film is going. The bad news: It's the sequel to 'Sister Act,' which, with domestic grosses of $140 million, is arguably Disney's most important live-action franchise."

One sequel does not a "franchise" make, cautions David Hoberman, president of Touchstone and Walt Disney Pictures. But, as one of the studios' three Christmas offerings--along with "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "The Three Musketeers"--"Sister Act 2" carries a lot of weight.

"The first 'Sister Act' was, internally and externally, a beloved movie--one that generated a lot of success and good will," he says. "That's why, with the right story, we were quick to jump. Dawn is very prideful about these things, so I didn't think she'd be an easy sell. But when we came back fast and said we were ready to roll, everyone was so flabbergasted they all got on board."

Mason, with a handful of TV scripts and 50 plays behind her, had spent 18 months observing Stevenson's classes and writing the screenplay. In September, two days before she went into labor, the script was submitted to Disney. Returning home from the hospital with her newborn son, she was told the studio loved it. For two months, she permitted herself the luxury of visualizing the Iris Stevenson story on the screen--only to be apprised in November of the sudden change of course.

"This is my first movie so I was thrilled it was going to get made," Mason begins. "Since they were going to let me adapt it, I felt relatively safe. Still, it was like asking a mother to perform surgery on her child. Turning a drama--particularly one based on a real-life person--into a comedy about a fictitious character struck me as funny. But since I stayed with the project through two drafts, I hope I was able to lock some of Stevenson's spirit in."

The experience, nevertheless, was an eye-opening one. "Hollywood is a hard place to work, but you have to take it on its own terms," Mason concludes. "My family in Bossier City, La., will be happy to see my name up there. You can count on one hand the number of movies written by, and about, an African American woman. And, if nothing else, this experience gives me the courage to keep going."

Steel is also philosophical in retrospect. "As a former studio executive, I understood Disney's needs," says the producer, a former president of Columbia Pictures. "The script was very good, so the studio made the obvious call."

Since Steel went off to do "Cool Runnings," the story of a Jamaican Olympic bobsled team, and producer Scott Rudin, who had clashed with Goldberg on the original "Sister Act," involved himself mostly in pre- and post-production, Laurence Mark was brought in at the 11th hour to oversee the $30-million project. Mario Iscovich, who had co-produced "Sister Act," was back as co-executive producer. Bill Duke ("A Rage in Harlem," "The Cemetery Club") would direct a script rewritten by "Three Men and a Baby's" Jim Cruikshank and James Orr.

"Sister Act 2" opens with a visit to singer Deloris Van Cartier (Goldberg) from the nuns (Kathy Najimy, Mary Wickes and Wendy Makkena) in whose convent she hid before testifying in a mob murder case. Would Deloris, who had urged them to do "some good in the 'hood," give them a hand at the roughneck St. Francis Academy? Deloris agrees out of gratitude to her friends--and especially to Mother Superior (Maggie Smith). By movie's end, the students find themselves at an all-state music competition, having acquired hope and self-respect en route.

"In a way, using the Iris Stevenson story as a template was a good idea," maintains executive producer Mark. "They had to finesse getting Deloris back in the habit, which was accomplished by having her "go undercover" as a teacher in an inner-city parish school. And it placed her in another situation in which she could be a catalyst. In the spirit of Iris Stevenson, Sister Mary Clarence shows the kids there's a way out."

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Though "Sister Act" (which was directed by Emile Ardolino, who died last month at age 50) was a volatile shoot, says Duke, things were much calmer this time. The primary--and extremely complicated--challenge was marrying the Iris Stevenson story to the needs of a "Sister Act" audience hungry for the same spirit and characters as before. The notoriously hands-on Disney, he says, was even more so on the sequel.

"This is one of their biggest films of the year, so I think they were nervous," Duke says, taking a break from an arduous post-production schedule that has consumed him 15 hours a day, seven days a week, for several months. ("My next project?" he quips, "Going to a rest home.") "With an investment like this, Disney wanted a great deal of input. Still, in the final analysis, 80% of my vision is on the screen . . . which is a hell of a lot. That's what every director fights for."

The project strikes some as a stretch for Duke, who has no experience in musicals. Deloris' tacky opening Las Vegas medley, for starters, combines lines from 18 songs and requires three costume changes, three backup singers and 10 male dancers. No matter, says Disney's Hoberman. " 'Rage in Harlem' wasn't a musical but it was a very stylistic movie," he says. "We'd just got through working with Duke on 'Cemetery Club' and we--and Whoopi--liked him. Finally, a black director might bring a good point of view into a movie about the inner city."

Duke also viewed the project as a logical step--but for different reasons. "My focus has always been to be accepted as a director--not a 'black director,' " he explains. "Just as 'Cemetery Club' was about three Jewish women who'd lost their husbands, 'Sister Act 2' gives me a chance to work with a mixed cast. It's also an opportunity to meet the profit potential proven in the original--and with a budget higher than any I've worked with before."

Another incentive was the opportunity to put forth positive black role models--a goal Duke also targeted in his just-published book: "Black Light: The African American Hero," which profiles, among others, Spike Lee and Arsenio Hall.

The struggle, he admits, is an uphill one. And the fault isn't all Hollywood's. "Black audiences say they want family oriented films with no violence and sex," the director points out. "Yet they support a movie like 'Terminator 2' over a warm, heartfelt--if flawed--movie like 'The Five Heartbeats,' which Robert Townsend made to address that need. On one side of their mouths, blacks say they want positive images but they're voting with their dollars for more of the same."

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Crenshaw student Keisha Grayson, 16, is likewise skeptical of the film industry's ability to make upbeat, yet believable, urban stories. "There's not a lot of positive stuff to show," she says, "so the movie would be too short. I'm not about to pay $7 to see a 30-minute movie. Miss Stevenson is a ray of light in the middle of all this darkness. That's why I've waited months to get into her class."

Though Stevenson sent the choir to Nice with the money from her Disney deal, there's no Santa Claus this time around. Her classes are currently scrambling to come up with the $69,000 needed to send the choir to Holland, Belgium and Germany in February, where they will perform concerts celebrating the European Community's Maastrich Treaty, which fosters political and economic cooperation. Add this to a 6 p.m. performance at Universal CityWalk on Thursday, as well as the piano concerts, nationwide gospel music workshops and church work already on Stevenson's plate, and, not surprisingly, show business has been relegated to the back burner. Dawn Steel, however, is still on the case. After the movie is released, she's taking Stevenson's tale to television in the hope that it will surface as a series or made-for-TV movie. "It won't be an easy sell," predicts one industry analyst. "That's like trying to sell the 'Janis Joplin Story' after 'The Rose.' "

If Stevenson, for her part, has faith that it will happen--"God knitted Dawn, Judi Ann and myself together--and someday, somewhere, we'll complete the original vision"--her assistant Williena McLemore takes a more secular approach. Told that Stevenson's story has been grafted onto "Sister Act," she shakes her head in disapproval.

"That's the movie business for you," she says. "My son is a singer-actor, so I know that, from minute to minute, everything's subject to change. Who's doing the financing, that's who has control. You know it. I know it. The world knows it."

McLemore has a point, Duke admits. "The Iris Stevenson/'Sister Act 2' experience is a microcosm of Hollywood today," he says. "All the machinations that enter into filmmaking, the elements that come into play. Under the ' auteur system,' directors were like macho painters putting their visions on a canvas. The system is now so collaborative and unpredictable you wonder how any film gets made.

"In the final analysis, we're faced with a series of compromises," the director concludes. "The only power left is deciding which ones to make."*

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