Blowing out 25 candles on a celebratory cake should be no problem from something as powerful as “Twister.”
A filmed-in-Oklahoma blockbuster that grossed nearly $500 million worldwide, “Twister” is turning 25. The film was released May 10, 1996 — one day after an Oklahoma premiere with director Jan de Bont and stars Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt at Penn Square Cinema in Oklahoma City.
The Twister Movie Museum in Wakita, an Oklahoma town made famous because it was a “Twister” filming site, is hosting a 25th anniversary bash from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 15. Guests will include actors Sean Whalen and Wendle Josepher, who were part of the storm-chasing team in the film.
Celebrate with them in advance by reading stories about Wakita and a movie-used vehicle that, a quarter century later, still attracts attention.
‘Twister’ on wheels
Once upon a time during lunch hours in the 1990s, Tim Stegner grabbed grub from Sonic and drove to an area in Guthrie where scenes from “Twister” were being filmed.
Though Wakita is the town most often associated with “Twister,” other Oklahoma communities also served as filming sites. A replica of a drive-in movie theater was built in Guthrie just so it could be obliterated in the movie.
Stegner loves “Twister.” It was part of his life. It still is, thanks to a vehicle he owns.
Stegner got a tip several years ago that someone was selling a “Twister” truck. He investigated and found out it was a yellow-with-blue-stripes 1984 Jeep J10 pickup driven by Hunt’s character. That vehicle got body-slammed by a tornado 33 minutes into the film, but Stegner said the production had four of those Jeeps — two that were functional and two that didn’t run. It was one of the “dead” Jeeps that got dropped from the sky in “Twister.”
Stegner said the person he bought his “Twister” Jeep from has owned two of them and one wound up in the Hollywood Star Cars Museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The previous owner told Stegner he would sell him the Jeep only if he promised to preserve it. He didn’t want to sell a piece of history to someone who would cannibalize it for parts.
The “Twister” truck was in need of lovin’. It had been stolen and recovered before being put up for sale, according to Stegner. He said the motor was blown and parts had been plucked. Minus wheels and tires, the Jeep had fallen far from stardom and was sitting on dirt behind a shop near Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City.
Stegner pillaged parts from salvage yards to replace those that had gone missing. A motor and transmission transplant helped the Jeep get mobile again, but it still needed so much work that Stegner chose to stash it away rather than let it gobble up his spare time. There it sat for five or six years.
An out-of-the-blue call — hey, would you be interested in driving the truck in a parade? — from the director of the Twister Movie Museum led to Stegner getting the Jeep road-ready. For the parade, he worked out a deal with the National Weather Center to borrow a “Dorothy” weather gadget from “Twister” in exchange for use of the truck at another event.
“That’s how we learned just how popular the ‘Twister’ truck was,” Stegner said.
The vehicle was barely on the road before photos started showing up on social media. Of course it was showered with attention at the parade. Stegner realized he wasn’t the only person with a fondness for the truck and the movie. He said he has been on cruises all over the world and other cruisers chat him up about “Twister” after finding out he is from Oklahoma.
“I get that I’m a little geeky on it,” he said. “But there are people who take it to a whole other level.”
Home for the vehicle is Guthrie, where Stegner owns an auto body shop, Tim’s Body Worx. He said people track down his body shop because they want to lay eyes on the “Twister” Jeep.
“We do custom restorations, so I am around, and build, a lot of really high-end classic cars,” he said. “I build cars that are $150,000 or $200,000 project cars and they are super nice and they are just gorgeous and they have a hard time competing with the attention this old truck gets.”
Stegner said a couple flew in from Chicago last year to see “Twister” film sites, the museum and the Jeep.
“I sat and talked to them for an hour and they took pictures with it and sat in it,” he said. “It’s just really kind of incredible to me how much that movie means to people.”
How much does it mean to Stegner? He said he’ll never sell the truck. He was tempted when a movie-used Dorothy popped up on eBay a couple of years ago.
“I bid that thing up to $10,000,” Stegner said. “My wife was not real happy about that.”
The next bidder won Dorothy. Stegner has plans to build a duplicate and he’s on the lookout for parts to make the Jeep look movie-accurate. Black 6x9 KC lights seem to be the hardest thing for him to find.
A real storm played a role in making Wakita the site of a famous movie storm and a tourist destination.
Located in north central Oklahoma, perhaps a flying cow or two from the Kansas border, Wakita was ravaged by a tornado in “Twister.”
Filming took place in 1995. Two years earlier, Wakita was battered by grapefruit-sized hail. Linda Wade, director of the Twister Movie Museum, said the hailstorm destroyed roofs, cars, windows and incomes (a harvest was sabotaged).
Some vacant buildings and old houses were uninsured, so they didn’t get fixed. The town applied for a demolition grant. Good timing: The “Twister” team needed a town to demolish and scouted out five towns that received demolition grants, according to Wade. Wakita was the smallest and the most remote (you have to be going there to find it) and no highway would need to be closed down during filming. Other towns wanted cash up front in exchange for being a film site, according to Wade, who said Wakita was glad just to get $100,000 worth of free demolition work.
Don’t jump to the conclusion that the Grant County town was wiped from the map just so a movie could be made. Wakita is still there, but it’s minus about 20 structures that were demolished. Still standing, of course, is the Twister Movie Museum at 101 W. Main St.
“The whole reason we set up the museum was so there would be something for people to see besides a water tower,” Wade said. “We felt like visitors were important and if they were going to come this far, we wanted them to have a good experience.”
Stops on a “Twister” walking tour in Wakita include information about filming sites, including the location of Aunt Meg’s house (RIP). Has there ever been a better-looking movie meal than the steak and eggs served to the storm chasers by Aunt Meg? Wade indicated the meal was originally going to be an outdoor Oklahoma barbecue, but the weather was toasty and the environment was a little “buggy” following a rainy spring. Air conditioning was installed in Aunt Meg’s home for the meal scene. The home (clobbered by the hail storm of ‘93) previously had no utilities.
Wade is a storytelling ambassador for all things related to “Twister” and Wakita. She’s excited that the museum, like the movie, is 25 years strong, but the flip side is she’s not sure if she will ever get to retire.
“Most major films, (the interest) lasts a couple of years and that’s it,” she said. “The first couple of years we did have masses of visitors, but still I am open April through August and I have daily visitors after 25 years.”
Wade said the museum attracts storm chasers and movie fans from all over the world. She said a minister from Brazil returns every two or three years. The museum is closed Sundays and Mondays, but she opened the doors Monday for seven visitors.
“Sunday I had a couple from France come and I was out of town and couldn’t make it back and I had a storm chase group that came through,” she said, “But at least there is a walking tour and a water tower. That’s why we set up the walking tour is because we knew I couldn’t be open all the time.”
Asked where actors were housed when shooting took place in Wakita, Wade referred visitors to a document that listed hotel room assignments. Paxton, for instance, stayed in room 310 of the Holiday Inn in Ponca City.
Paxton died in 2017 and kind things were said about him by cast mate Cary Elwes during a 2019 visit to Tulsa. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played an eccentric storm chaser in the film, died in 2014. Wade said Paxton was “phenomenal” in helping to launch the museum. He donated a “Twister” pinball machine that still works, never mind that it has since been struck by lightning, and a football he tossed around during “down” time in Wakita.
“While he was in town, he signed autographs for anyone,” Wade said. “He would take pictures with all the ladies. We were all in love. Just a very generous man.”
Warner Bros. was helpful in setting up the museum, too, according to Wade, leaving behind draft tables and photographs for the museum to use. Warner Bros. (and this is a good thing) also left items in the street.
The “Twister” folks wanted to shoot footage of a devastated Main Street. Salvation Army purchases were sprinkled into the “storm damage” on Main Street. During a 2016 interview, Wakita’s Mary Schmitz recalled the filmmakers bringing in debris from other places.
“They had a piano, and they dropped it on Main Street and it went everywhere and that was debris,” she said. “They tore down a house in Ponca City and brought it over and laid it on the street because we didn’t have enough debris for them.”
Said Wade: “We were five blocks of sidewalk-to-sidewalk, head-high debris for awhile, up and down, all around. And Warner Bros. (before cleaning everything up) actually gave us a couple of days to go through the debris and pick up stuff that we wanted, especially for the museum, and we recycled bricks and lumber and things like that. But we thought why put all this stuff in a landfill if we can use some of it?”
Recycled bricks were used to fund a gazebo that sprang up across the street from the museum.
Before “Twister,” Wade said Dwight Bushman tried to get Wakita’s hat in the ring to be a filming site for “Far and Away,” a 1992 Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman film about Irish immigrants who take part in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1893.
“We were much too progressive for that,” Wade said. “They went to Montana where there was nothing — no airlines, no highline wires, things like that.”
It wasn’t Wakita’s time. “Twister” was Wakita’s time. And two other films (“To the Stars” and “Wildlife”) have been shot there since.
Highway signs once reminded passersby that Wakita was the home of Twister. Problem: The signs kept disappearing. Wade said the state decided not to replace them after three sets were stolen. Gone, maybe, with the wind.