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November 8, 2012

From public safety to the public stage

Veteran City lieutenant renews love of acting with Grosse Pointe Theatre

By K. Michelle Moran
C & G Staff Writer

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Eddie Tujaka and Lucy Ament star in Grosse Pointe Theatre’s production of the mystery thriller, “Rehearsal for Murder.”

If you live in Grosse Pointe City and you’ve been the victim of a crime or a house fire, you might have seen Public Safety Lt. Eddie Tujaka at your door.

And if you’re a season ticket holder with Grosse Pointe Theatre, you’ve also seen Tujaka. Starting last season, the veteran police officer has been indulging in his lifelong but little known passion for the stage.

Tujaka and his older daughter, Jessica Tujaka, 16, are currently appearing in — fittingly enough — a mystery thriller, “Rehearsal for Murder,” which runs through Nov. 17. Penned by Emmy Award-winning television series writers Richard Levinson and William Link — whose credits include “Murder, She Wrote” and “Columbo” — “Rehearsal for Murder” is about the killing of a famous playwright’s fiancée, an actress, one year ago, and as the cast and crew stage their newest production, the mystery of what happened to the actress begins to unravel in a series of surprising developments.

But it’s not Eddie Tujaka playing a police officer in the show — it’s his daughter.

“She’s wearing my original badge from when I first got hired on (as a police officer) 26 and a half years ago,” he said.

He, meanwhile, plays a stage director, a role for which he’s gotten considerable advice from Arlene Marie Schoenherr, of St. Clair Shores, the real director of “Rehearsal for Murder.”

“That’s the convenient thing,” he jokingly said of his City office, which is less than a mile from GPT offices. “I can stop by Grosse Pointe Theatre offices several times a day with questions.”

The eastside native, who now lives with his family in the Farms, said he was “heavily involved in theater” at De La Salle High School. During his senior year, he landed the lead in the annual drama, comedy and musical, and won a newly minted school drama award from the Wig and Mask Society.

But he also had an interest in law enforcement, and by the time he had earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Wayne State University, Tujaka was a Detroit police officer stationed at a precinct near the campus. When he heard about open auditions for “Detroit Story” at Wayne State University’s Bonstelle Theatre, he tried out and landed the second male lead, a police lieutenant,

“I was the only one on stage with a real gun,” Tujaka said.

While on an actual murder run in Detroit, he said an EMS technician who recognized him from the show told Tujaka that he’d gotten a good review in the newspaper. A few people tried to talk him into heading for New York to pursue acting, but Tujaka opted to stay in law enforcement.

“I had (already) been a police officer for a couple of years,” he said. “I loved the cops and robbers stuff.”

But when the cable network Investigation Discovery visited Grosse Pointe City a couple of years ago to film an episode about the 2005 murder of an accountant on Dodge Place, Tujaka, an interview subject, found himself drawn into the world of performance once more.

“It lit the fire again under my love of acting,” he said.

Last fall, he and Jessica appeared in GPT’s production of “The Trip to Bountiful,” and he’s been involved on some level with almost every GPT production since then.

“I absolutely love it,” he said. “Grosse Pointe Theatre is like an extended family. You get so close to everyone. And I am a big hugger, so everyone gets a hug.”

For the father and daughter duo, working on plays gives them a chance to spend time together. Jessica Tujaka hopes to make acting a career, and said she’s planning on majoring in both theater and computer graphics.

“Even though we don’t interact a lot (on stage), it’s nice to be together,” Eddie Tujaka said. And after rehearsals and performances, he said it gives them something to talk about.

Schoenherr, a GPT veteran who also directs high school productions at Eddie Tujaka’s alma mater, said he’s a quick study.

“He’s eager,” she said. “He listens to what you say, and if he doesn’t understand, he’ll ask questions, which is the best way of learning.”

“Rehearsal for Murder” features Charly Davis, of Grosse Pointe Farms — a prosecutor in real life — as playwright Alex Dennison and Lucy Ament, of Grosse Pointe Park, as actress Monica Wells. The cast also includes Kori Bielaniec of Livonia, MaryLynn Bertetto of Grosse Pointe Farms, Robert Daniel of Grosse Pointe Woods, Scott Davis of Ferndale, Peter DiSante of St. Clair Shores, Donald Gbur of Harper Woods, Dan Morency of Grosse Pointe Park, Sal Rubino of Clinton Township, Theresa Selvaggio of Grosse Pointe Farms and Amber Vinson of Detroit.

Schoenherr moved the show’s setting from the 1960s to the 1930s, allowing for “a lot of wonderful costuming,” she said.

Selvaggio said this show features many actual costume pieces from the 1930s, thanks to veteran GPT costumer Ric Selke, of Harper Woods, who has worked on about 200 of the 300 shows GPT has staged in its 65-year history. Selvaggio plays a producer opposite Eddie Tujaka’s director character, so they share a lot of scenes.

“We refer to ourselves as Jack and Jill,” Selvaggio said of their characters.

Of her co-star, she said he moves well and “has great confidence.”

“He is terrific. … He is an absolute natural,” she said. “We’re proud to have him. He’s added a lot of energy.”

Audiences should expect “the unexpected” from this show, which Schoenherr said is the first “true mystery” GPT has staged in some time.

“It has many twists and turns,” she said. “Hopefully, (the audience) won’t guess who did it until the end.”

Having a public safety supervisor around can come in handy. Larry Garcia, of Grosse Pointe Woods, who is doing publicity for this production, said Tujaka has provided firearms expertise for shows such as “Oklahoma!” and the current production, which involves a shot being fired.

There are other advantages to having Eddie Tujaka around. During one of the productions of “Oklahoma!” earlier this season, Selvaggio said an audience member suddenly got sick. Because public safety officers have some medical training, Tujaka was able to help the patron.

GPT performances take place at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial, 32 Lake Shore. Upcoming performances of “Rehearsal for Murder” are at 8 p.m. Nov. 8-10, 2 p.m. Nov. 11 and 8 p.m. Nov. 15-17. Tickets are $18. For tickets or more information, call GPT at (313) 881-4004 or visit www.gpt.org.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer K. Michelle Moran at kmoran@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1047.