from the Fresno Bee, Sept. 8, 2021.
by Chuck Radke
Few Fresnans alive today will recognize the name Brenda Jones Cuttin. In fact, I may be the only one.
I think about Brenda every year about this time, specifically on my birthday, September 8th. I have thought of her every September 8th since 1977, which if you’re counting, is 44 years.
Even if you don’t recognize the name, you may remember the event. The 8th of September, 1976, was a Wednesday night—my 8th birthday—and Jones Cuttin was one-half of an aerialist duo performing with Ringling Bros. in Selland Arena. Jones Cuttin’s partner was a daredevil named Elvin Bale, who that night in downtown Fresno, sat atop a motorcycle perched on a wire 60 feet above the sawdust-covered concrete.
If you’re my age and lived in Fresno at the time, maybe it’s all coming back to you. Maybe this sounds vaguely familiar.
I was with my mother, newly single, and the trip to the circus was a coming out party as our own kind of aerialist duo. My father left on August 8th of that year, so we’d been on our own for exactly a month. My mother briefly grieved the divorce, then dusted herself off and said, “We’re going to the circus!”
It was an auspicious beginning to the rest of our lives together, which Mom’s doctors said—given her health—should have lasted around five years. As she declined and neared her final days, I was to have been returned to my father.
Remarkably, though, my mother’s life did not end after five more years. It did not end after 10, 20, 30, or 40, either. Granted, they were not pretty years. Her health struggles were dreadful and incomprehensible. She survived things many would not have. As her primary caretaker during those years, I had a front-row seat to the circus that was her health journey. I was, in a way, her Elvin Bale as we navigated, together, life without a net. My mother lived to be 80.
But, back to Brenda Jones Cuttin.
That night at Selland, the ringmaster announced an act so death-defying, it would leave us on the edges of our seats. Then, in a spotlight, we saw them: Bale on his motorcycle, and below him on a trapeze, Brenda Jones Cuttin.
“She’s so beautiful,” Mom said.
You can probably guess the rest, but here’s the abridged version: Jones Cuttin rocked on her trapeze, like a girl in a park. She released her hands and hung by her hooked knees. Her plan, it seemed, was to use her momentum to swing, then release, and—for an instant—float freely in space before snatching the bar with her hands.
Liliane Johnson, in the September 11, 1976 Sarasota Herald Tribune, reported on the accident, calling the stunt “one of the easiest aerial acts” of all time, especially for a woman like her friend Jones Cuttin, who routinely performed “underneath helicopters.”
Something happened, though, which made the stunt less-than-easy; doctors said later it was cardiac arrest. As Jones Cuttin floated mid-air, she cried out, and her voice just stopped, abruptly. That’s what I remember most: her cry, then its stopping. Her hands groped at a bar that swung just out of reach, and her body pin-wheeled to the concrete. Mercifully, the coroner said, she died prior to hitting the ground. I remember thinking as she fell that something would catch Jones Cuttin, that her fall was all part of the act. But nothing was there to catch her; her fall was not part of the act. And that’s why I now remember Brenda Jones Cuttin on my birthday each year, just as I remember my mother, whose fall was much, much longer, but every bit as death-defying.
Chuck Radke is a Fresno State alum who works in the Division of Research and Graduate Studies at the university. He is the author of the 2021 memoir, Stuccoville, Life Without a Net (WiDo, Salt Lake City).