JUDGE QUELLS COURT TENSION ON STAGE

Norbert Ehrenfreund leads a double life.

By day, he dons the dark robes and dispassionate manner of a Superior Court judge. But when his day in court is over, he takes on another role as an actor on local stages.

"I need it," Ehrenfreund said of performing during an interview from his Hillcrest apartment. "It's almost necessary. If I didn't do it, I'd really be down. You know, on the bench, you're 'his honor' to everyone. You need an atmosphere where you're not the boss all the time--where you're being directed--so you don't lose your perspective.

"Acting gives me a chance to express emotion. The bench is the epitome of squaredom," he said with a chuckle. "The stage gives you a chance to give vent to your emotions. I'm basically introverted, and I need that opportunity to express myself."

But ever since August, 1981, when Ehrenfreund began presiding over what turned out to be a 20-month Fotomat antitrust case, he has been conspicuously absent from local stages.

The court case "involved me to such a degree that I couldn't do anything else," he said. "I became ill during the trial, and lost my voice. It was the toughest thing I've ever been through."

Ehrenfreund worked in "The Lemon Grove Incident" for KPBS-TV (Channel 15) last year (in which he portrayed a judge). But that was the extent of his acting activities during the last few years.

That will change this weekend when he will be back in front of the footlights for the West Coast premiere of "Big Maggie," by Irish playwright John B. Keane. The production, which opens Friday, will be at the Marquis Public Theater Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. for at least a month.

Acting turns the tables on the judge, but Ehrenfreund doesn't mind being judged on his performances.

"I've had trials where whole juries came to see the show--and they judge me," he said. "But that's fine. If you're going to be an actor, you set yourself up for the critics."

Ehrenfreund, 64, has had an illustrious career both on and off the bench. The graduate of Stanford Law School began his career as a journalist with Stars and Stripes after serving with Gen. George Patton's Army during World War II.

"I lived in London and Berlin after I got out of the Army," he said, "and as a correspondent for the Stars and Stripes, I covered the Nuremberg war trials. That's where I developed my interest in law. And my father always wanted me to go to law school. But I was always involved in acting as well.

"I've had two major careers, one in journalism and the other in the law--but theater has always been a major interest."

Ehrenfreund lived the bohemian life in Greenwich Village before going on to get a law degree and become deputy district attorney in San Diego. Since Ehrenfreund became a judge, he has been involved in some of San Diego's most publicized cases.

"I was named trial judge of the year in 1983 (by the San Diego Trial Lawyers Assn.) and I have gotten a lot of big cases," he said. "I tried the case of the man who murdered the Old Globe actor. In fact, I still have to pass sentence."

But of all his achievements, Ehrenfreund is proudest of his part in protecting battered wives.

"I started a new program when I was in Domestic Court, and it resulted in the Domestic Violence Prevention Act. It started as an experiment, and I think it's one of my biggest contributions to the law in San Diego," he said.

Ehrenfreund is off on a new project now, and he's optimistic about its potential.

"I asked for a transfer to juvenile court, because I'd like to do something about delinquency and child abuse. We at juvenile court work in two areas--(trying) juvenile delinquents, and dealing with parents who abuse their children.

"When children are abused, they also tend to become delinquents. We have to break the cycle. And it can be done, but we need to improve our methods of counseling people. People can make changes."

Ehrenfreund's acting credits are almost as impressive as his courtroom career. He performed "Macbeth" off-Broadway in New York. He has a string of successes with Mission Playhouse, once a leading theater troupe in town. He snared an Atlas Award for best actor for his performance in an Old Globe production of "Incident at Vichy." And he earned critical acclaim in an emotional rendering of Brady in the Coronado Playhouse staging of "Inherit the Wind"--when that ensemble was in its heyday.

When Ehrenfreund returns as Byrne in "Big Maggie," he will share the stage with another actor remembered from "Inherit the Wind."

"This play reunites me with Sheldon Gero. It's the first time we've been together since 'Inherit the Wind.' That's very exciting," he said.

What's next?

"Well, I'd still like to do more theater, and I'd like to write for the stage. I just finished a one-act, but I'm still reluctant about it." Nevertheless, he said, "I want to write more plays."

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