If you're a Kansan with cable, you've likely seen the 1996 tornado movie "Twister."
Maybe you've even seen it several times this month.
The film, one of the more realistic of the unrealistic tornado movies ever made, stars Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as two storm chasers who are as passionate about each other as they are about chasing down an elusive F5 tornado. It was released to big box office numbers 22 years ago this week, and it's still aired on cable over and over and over again.
But if you make the 85-mile drive from Wichita to Wakita, Okla. — where the movie's most dramatic scenes were based and filmed — and stop on Main Street at the tiny but wonderfully kitschy Twister (The Movie) Museum, you'll never channel surf past "Twister" again.
There, you'll met Linda Wade, the dedicated and well-spoken caretaker of the museum, who started volunteering there when it opened 23 years ago, assuming that interest would die down in a couple of years.
The museum, a collection of set pieces, memorabilia, photos and home movies taken during production, is stuffed into a tiny building that served as the movie's production office during filming and is still a destination for hundreds of people each year.
They come to the tiny town, population 340, because they love the movie and they want to see the famous Wakita water tower featured in the film for themselves. They come because they're storm chasers or tornado fanatics or Paxton fans still mourning the 61-year-old star's untimely death after heart surgery last year.
"It's been 23 years now, and we're still having daily visitors," said Wade, who appeared as an extra in the film and one of many locals who considered Paxton a personal friend. "Yesterday, I was closed, and I had 20-some visitors. They just kind of call me and say, 'Can we come down?' And we say, 'Sure.'"
'Twister' hits Wakita
"Twister" took over Wakita in the spring of 1995.
Warner Brothers, looking for an authentic-looking Oklahoma town it could tear up, found Wakita after it applied for a demolition grant to help it recover from a devastating hail storm two years before. That storm had hurled grapefruit-sized ice balls through the roofs and windows of Wakita's homes and businesses, and many uninsured vacant buildings had sat, deteriorating, ever since.
Wakita needed to do something about those buildings.
"They came and looked at everything and said, 'OK, let us do it for you,' and we said, 'Thank you very much,'" Wade said.
The movie studio offered to do more than $100,000 worth of demolition work and said they would clean it all up when they were done. The town got to keep $80,000 from the grant, which it used for sidewalk improvements and other projects.
“It was a win-win in that respect,” Wade said. “It meant a lot to the town.”
The studio used the materials from the tear downs to fill five blocks of Wakita with waist-high debris, making the town look like it’d just been devastated by a tornado. They also pinpointed an old farmhouse on Elm Street that would star as the home of Aunt Meg, played by Topeka-born actress Lois Smith.
Those who have seen the movie know that, when Wakita is hit by the twister, it destroys the house of Helen Hunt’s character’s beloved aunt. When the main characters roll into Wakita after the tornado, their discovery of the house is one of the film’s most dramatic scenes.
Wakita residents were excited about the arrival of the crews, and all of them were invited to audition as extras. When the stars arrived for their month-and-a-half of work in Wakita, the town became filled with armed guards. People who lived in Wakita got special stickers (one of which is on display in the museum) that identified them as residents so they could come and go freely.
During the time that the stars were in town, the residents got to know them, Wade said.
People were particularly charmed by Paxton, a Texas native who had an easy-going nature.
“Bill was like family to us,” Wade said. “He would sign autographs. He would take pictures. He carried a football and played with all our kids.
“He ran up and down the street in his blue jeans and cowboy boots with his football,” she said. “He could remember people's names. It was phenomenal.”
Hunt, Wade remembers, was a bit more reserved.
“She had a bodyguard,” Wade said. “She's from California. It’s different there.”
One day, famed director Steven Spielberg, who was one of the film’s executive producers, visited the Wakita set. Wade can show you exactly where he walked on the museum’s floors.
When filming was over, the crews let the townspeople pick through the debris and take what they wanted. Some of it made its way to the museum. Wade has a couch from Aunt Meg’s house she hopes to find time to refurbish someday.
People also took lumber from the sets, which had been erected along Main Street and had trouble withstanding the Oklahoma winds.
“There are bathroom additions with ‘Twister’ lumber here in town,” Wade said. “They used good lumber. There was no sense putting it in the landfill if we could recycle it.”
The museum was opened by the Wakita garden club in 1995, shortly after the film crews cleared out of town.
When the movie was released, the town of Wakita was offered a special screening. But only about 85 of them went.
The screening happened about 90 miles away, in Fairview, Okla.
“There’s no movie theater in Grant County,” Wade said.
Pictures, pinball and Dorothy
It’s hard to choose a star piece in the “Twister” museum, but it’s probably Dorothy.
The metal cylinder, decorated with a picture of “The Wizard of Oz’s” Dorothy Gale, sits in the center of the main room.
Dorothy was a main character in the movie. Paxton’s team of storm chasers' main goal was the get her in the path of a tornado so that hundreds of tiny sensors inside of her would be released into the funnel and provide data about the storm.
The film crew actually had four Dorothys, Wade says. One is at the Salt Museum in Hutchinson. One is at the National Weather Center in Norman. One was sold on eBay. The Twister Museum got to keep the most beat up of the Dorothys.
There’s also a wall of neatly arranged and salvaged debris from the movie: a hubcap, some street signs, a porch railing, a stoplight. Mannequins in the corner wear the different T-shirts from the two rival groups of storm chasers in the movie: the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” as Wade calls them. Another corner displays fading photographs of what the town looked like during filming.
The back room has an entire corner dedicated to Paxton, including photos, paintings and autographs. There’s a letter from Paxton sending his regrets to the museum’s 15th anniversary celebration in 2010. Unfortunately, he wrote, he was busy filming “Big Love,” the HBO polygamy drama he starred in from 2006 to 2011.
But he sent the football he played with while he was in Wakita as an addition to the museum.
“I still have many fond memories of my time and of the people there,” he wrote.
Also in this section of the museum is a Twister pinball machine, made by Sega in 1996. Wade said Paxton called the museum one day and asked if they’d like to have one, then had it sent over. Wade keeps it on “free play” so visitors can give it a try.
The museum also is full of "Twister" memorabilia that other people have donated, including some mauve curtains that a medic who worked on the set obtained. The curtains are visible in the scene where a house rolls into the roadway and Paxton’s pickup drives right through it.
One highlight of the museum is a continuous loop of grainy home movies that locals were allowed to take when the crew was filming. Wade likes to walk visitors through one clip where you can see Hunt running through the debris of her aunt’s house in Wakita. Viewers can hear the director yell “action” and see Hunt climb up the debris and into the house, over and over again.
Before you leave the museum, you can buy a little baggie of red dirt labeled as “genuine Twister debris,” shop through a giant rack of Twister Museum T-shirts or purchase a glittery coffee mug with the Twister Museum logo.
When you’re done, you can travel down the two blocks of Main Street and three blocks of Elm looking for homemade red stands that are part of Wakita’s “Twister Walking Tour." Five of the six include faded photographs that are hard to make out. One is empty.
But at the end of the tour, on Elm, you’ll find the spot that used to hold Aunt Meg’s house — used to because when the house was destroyed in a scene in the movie, it was actually destroyed. And it was destroyed twice, Wade said. When directors didn’t like how it fell down the first time, they jacked it back up with a 90-ton crane and had it fall again.
Now the site holds only a raised garden full of purple flowers and a few pieces of wind art, the kind that were in Meg’s yard in the movie.
That famous water tower also is visible from Elm.
Every year, storm chasers gather at the museum for a big party, Wade said. The next gathering is on Sept. 15.
But between now and then, Wade will spend her Tuesdays through Fridays giving the "Twister" museum spiel to curious tourists who come from all over the world. She’s had visitors from Latvia, from Antarctica. She even has had couples come for their honeymoon.
Wade also is focused on 2020, when the museum will have its 25th anniversary. The storm chasers are expecting a big party.
“I keep thinking I’ll get to retire someday,” Wade said. "But it doesn’t look like it’s for another two years, anyway.”
Visit the Twister (The Movie) Museum
What: A museum in tiny Wakita, Okla., that's full of memorabilia from the filming of the 1996 movie "Twister"
Where: 101 W. Main, Wakita (about 85 miles southwest of Wichita)
Hours: 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, April through August
Miscellaneous: Bring cash for the gift store. There's no credit card machine.
Watch "Twister" on TV: The movie will air at 8 p.m. Friday, May 11; 4:25 p.m. Saturday, May 12; and 7 and 9:35 p.m. May 22 on AMC