Media Life: TV's "Survivor" has Placer County, Auburn rooting for "adventurous granny"

New book details dark side of an iconic prospector’s life; Date set for “Phenomenon” movie reunion in Auburn
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Keep an eye on “Survivor Gabon: Earth’s Last Eden” contestant Jill Larson. She’s the “adventurous granny” in an initial group of 17 “Survivor” contestants competing for the $1 million prize between now and December’s final installment of the popular CBS reality show. Larson has a Placer County connection that makes it easy for locals to root for her. Retired Auburn real estate broker Wayne Larson and his wife, Inez, will be watching “Survivor Gabon” episodes with particular interest. Jill is the Loomis couple’s daughter-in-law. Jill is also sister-in-law to the Larson’s son, Steve Larson, an Auburn resident and retired chiropractor, and Rhonda Larson, who works for Placer County Child Protective Services. And Jill herself lived for a short time in Granite Bay. A native of South Africa, Jill met the Larsons’ son Ron Larson while she was working as a nurse in Germany and he was in the Air Force. They’ve been married 37 years and now live in Temecula. Ron moved with his family from Southern California and didn’t attend local schools but did graduate from Chico State. The family didn’t even know that Jill had traveled to Africa for “Survivor,” said mother-in-law Inez. With intense secrecy surrounding filming, the family was only told that she was on a Doctors Without Borders mission. The family did know about Larson’s obsession to get on the show. She had applied 15 times since the program first started airing eight years ago. At 61, Jill could become the oldest winner yet. She’s visited 46 countries and most of the U.S. states – much of the time backpacking. “She’s that type of person who loves to do anything different,” Inez Larson said. The show airs on Sacramento’s CBS 13. TELLING THE TALE Self-publishing provides a chance for anyone to get a story out there and without it, many stories would remain unwritten and untold. For 60 years, the story that surrounds Elk Grove author (and Meadow Vista expatriate) Brookelea Heintz Lutton’s self-published “Old Man of the Mountains” was left unsaid. For many of those years, it was her father, George Heintz’s story. He found the story – or the beginnings of one – in a pouch of papers back in 1950 in an old mine shaft. They once belonged to eccentric, much-photographed Peter Voiss. Voiss was one of those relics of memory from the 1930s who seemed to populate the fringes of the times. Lutton speculates that he’d be living in a homeless shelter or under a bridge if he was around today. Looking as if he had just emerged from a B movie Western of that period, Voiss drove his canvas-covered cart over much of California – the consummate “old prospector” that time had forgotten. He’d touch down in communities like Auburn, looking for gold and eking out a living in other more modern ways People could stop and take his picture (for a fee) or buy a postcard or poem. He’d also offer rides on his burros to children (for a fee). Those stops would include Auburn and its environs, where he was befriended and helped out by optometrist Walter Durfee. In 1936, the National Geographic published a picture of him in one of its editions. In 1939, he was a fixture at the San Francisco World’s Fair. But the Voiss story isn’t a simple, bucolic tale of a wandering eccentric. Lutton’s book details events that would be splashed across the pages of newspapers of the time. Voiss shot a man to death in 1936. The man was a prominent San Jose-area attorney and the whole thing didn’t make a lot of sense. The lawyer was taking photos of Voiss and his cart. Voiss was angry and several witnesses watched him fire through a car window at the lawyer’s head with the ancient shotgun he kept on his cart more for decoration than protection. Lutton takes readers through the subsequent trial and bittersweet final years of Voiss’s life. The Auburn angle: While Voiss was on trial, Durfee cared for the prospector’s burros at his ranch. For Lutton, as with many self-publishers, the Voiss story was one she needed to tell when established publishers weren’t willing to take it on. Her father’s story – he made many starts and stops in putting it down on paper – became her story after he died. But the purse containing photos and other artifacts of the old prospector’s life remained waiting, its secrets to be unlocked. Since July, when Lutton’s first edition of “Old Man of The Mountains” was published, the story can now be shared. The book is available at Back Country in Old Town Auburn, the Courthouse Museum gift shop, or by visiting Lutton also plans to be at the Auburn Community Festival coming up Oct. 18 at Recreation Park. ON THE BUTTON Oct. 29 has been set as the date for the “Phenomenon” reunion in Old Town Auburn. The making of the movie starring John Travolta in Auburn brought thousands of fans to the open set, involved hundreds of locals as extras and support services, and literally took over the town. Old Town was the center of the action, with filming over about a month and construction of a “set” garage on the street. Old Town business owner Linda Robinson said that she’s arranged for part of the central area of Old Town to be closed off to enable the reunion celebration (fans are invited too as well as people who haven’t seen the film) to take place from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The movie will be shown and one of the featured actors – Tony Genaro – has said he’s hoping to travel from Southern California to attend. Robinson said she’s also requesting some help in the wording on a commemorative “brass button” that will be placed near the spot in Old Town where Travolta’s character was hit by a blinding light and fell to the ground. She needs 10 words or less and the wording should include the word “Phenomenon” and the date “1995.” Because of safety concerns it won’t be placed near the middle of the road, where Travolta fell. People with ideas have until Oct. 10 to contact Robinson at or at Sun River Clothing Co. in Old Town. Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at or (530) 852-0232.