WAKITA – Tornadoes are associated with death and misery.

Not this one.

“It has kept us alive in a lot of ways,” Mary Schmitz said.

Schmitz, a Wakita resident, was referring to a fictional twister that rampaged through her town 20 years ago.

“Twister,” which generated nearly $500 million worldwide and became the second-biggest film (behind “Independence Day”) of 1996, was released May 9, 1996.

Virtually the entire town of Wakita, located in Grant County in north central Oklahoma, was transformed into a movie set for a film about tornado chasers.

It might not be exaggeration to say the agreement between filmmakers and Wakita residents was something like, “Here’s our town. Do with it what you will, within reason.”

The script called for Wakita to be destroyed by a monster tornado near the end of the movie. So it was, at least as far as moviegoers could tell.

“It really looks like the end of the world,” star Bill Paxton said in “The Making of Twister.”

“They just reduced this place to rubble.”

Anybody checked up on Wakita lately?

Twenty years later, population is on the downswing — from 420 in 2000 to 344 in 2010, according to census figures.

A hardware store (it was a go-to place when the “Twister” crew needed equipment) and a funeral home have gone out of business.

The biggest blow came when the school closed. Enrollment was under 50 during the 2010-11 academic year, so voters passed a measure that sent Wakita’s students to Medford, 16 miles away.

Losing a school can be a death knell for a small town.

But Wakita still has a nursing home with roots (the facility was featured in Time magazine when it opened in 1968), a bank, an insurance agency, the Twister Cafe (Steven Spielberg ate there once), a gas station, a grocery store, agricultural businesses and a post office.

“We still have a lot of things that sometimes towns of this size just don’t have anymore,” Schmitz said. “I think we can thank the people around here who support the town in that respect.”

And — don’t forget — Wakita has “Twister.”

Wakita’s 15 minutes of fame (that’s about how long the town appears in the 113-minute movie) seems everlasting.

International attraction

Movie cameras arrived in Wakita in 1995. A building at the intersection of Main and Locust streets served as the location office.

Now it’s the home of the memorabilia-laden Twister Museum, which has been in operation since a few months before the movie was released. The Twister Museum and a five-block walking tour of film sites still attract visitors to Wakita.

Museum director Linda Wade (her husband was Wakita’s mayor during the Twister era) said the museum gets visitors every day in the summer. Sightseers come from every state and from spots all over the globe. The guest book (the museum’s third; two others were filled) was signed recently by tourists from the Central African Republic and Antwerp, Belgium.

Elaborating on how “Twister” has helped keep Wakita alive, Schmitz said the movie has kept the town in people’s minds. The name is familiar to the whole world, according to Wade, who said, “I took a vacation to Mexico, and I was wearing one of my ‘Twister’ shirts and a taxi driver literally wouldn’t let us out of the taxi until I gave him my shirt. He gave me a shirt from Cancun, and I gave him my ‘Twister’ shirt because he was a ‘Twister’ fan.”

Schmitz helps Wade at the museum. Among star attractions is a Dorothy I prop from the movie and a “Twister” pinball machine that was donated by Paxton. The pinball machine is set on free play for visitors, and admission to the museum is free, though donations are accepted.

“We figured if they come all the way to Wakita, it’s a long drive and they spent a lot to come here, so there’s no sense charging them admission,” Wade said.

“We don’t know how to take people for money,” Schmitz added. “We’re too nice.”

Souvenirs are available for sale. Some visitors have wrangled their own keepsakes. Wade said photographs that are placed along the path of the walking tour tend to vanish. And road signs on Oklahoma 11 that directed cars to the “Twister” town kept getting stolen.

Folks aren’t going to stumble onto Wakita while on the way to somewhere else. Oklahoma 11-A dead-ends at the western edge of Wakita, where visitors are greeted by a “Welcome to Wakita” billboard. Hang a right and you’ll soon spot the museum.

Sara Dougherty of Pasadena, California, is a seismologist who has been checking out earthquake activity in northern Oklahoma. She was driving through Wakita and noticed the museum. She loves the movie, so she decided she would come back when the museum was open to see what’s inside. (Schmitz said visitors can call the number any time and Wade will open the door or get someone else to do it.)

Dougherty popped in for a visit Wednesday. She said she was glad she stopped.

Adding to debris

Tornadoes have stirred up real damage in Wakita, including a 1978 twister that caused an estimated $350,000 worth of damage.

But it was a hailstorm that led to Wakita being chosen as a “Twister” site.

In June 1993, 24 months before filming began, hail the size of grapefruit bombarded Wakita.

“It killed animals,” Wade said. “It knocked holes in roofs.”

The hail also destroyed harvests, which therefore destroyed incomes.

Wade said insurance only goes so far, so several buildings were never repaired. That worked in Wakita’s favor when the “Twister” people were scouting Oklahoma locations. They needed debris and lots of it to simulate tornado damage. Wakita had ready-to-destroy structures that could be transformed into debris.

“Jeff Foxworthy says you might be a redneck if a twister hits your town and does $100,000 worth of improvements,” Wade said. “And we pretty much think he was talking about us at the time.”

Wade said “Twister” crews probably did $100,000 worth of demolition work “so it was a definite benefit to the town.” False storefronts were created and destroyed to add to the debris.

“They even brought in debris,” Schmitz said. “They had a piano, and they dropped it on Main Street and it went everywhere and that was debris. 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.”

Items were purchased from the Salvation Army and strewn about, according to Wade. Director Jan de Bont wanted the imagery to resemble photos of actual tornado damage.

The debris was so “real” that security didn’t want people stumbling around and getting hurt. The pickup truck Paxton’s character drove through debris to get to Aunt Meg’s house went through four sets of tires during filming, according to Wade. Wakita residents were issued lanyards and stickers to prove they lived in the area.

Despite what moviegoers might have assumed from on-screen carnage, all of Wakita wasn’t flattened. Only select structures were trashed. One resident’s home was coveted, so it was purchased and she got to move to a home on the other side of town, according to Wade.

“I mean, she didn’t have to lift a finger,” Wade said. “She came out way ahead.”

Post-destruction, locals were allowed to cherry-pick the debris.

“They gave us a weekend to go through the debris before they started cleaning up, so we have bathroom additions from Twister lumber and the farmers got a lot of telephone poles for corner posts, but they didn’t let us just jump into it,” Wade said. “Five blocks were divided up among the five churches in town and so the members of each church had a block that they could salvage from.”

The “Twister” people kept their promise and cleaned up the rest of the mess.

Wade said the company that was hired for cleanup also cleaned up after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

“So they were happy to get a pleasant job after that,” she said.

A good deal

“Twister” starred Paxton and Helen Hunt. The cast included Cary Elwes, Jami Gertz, Philip Seymour Hoffman — and, potentially, everybody in town.

“They had a casting call in Wakita, so we could sign up to be extras and pretty much everybody did,” Wade said. “And they called us and they fed us and they paid us (about $100 per day) and we could see the stars. It was a pretty good deal for us.”

That doesn’t mean every extra was seen in the film. Schmitz said she ended up on the cutting room floor.

“I think I was just too good of an actress, showing up the others,” she joked.

The other benefit was getting a behind-the-scenes look at how a movie is made. Wakita’s residents had free rein — it was their town, after all — to lurk about and take photographs and shoot video.

“Nowadays, with the cellphones, it would just be totally different,” Wade said.

Three home videos were combined for a tape that can be viewed at the museum. The video shows Paxton, who endeared himself to the community, throwing a football with locals. Paxton donated the football to the museum five years ago. Also among Paxton items in the museum is a letter that reads: “To the citizens of Wakita, thanks for helping me feel at home. Best always, Bill Paxton.”

Schmitz and Wade suggested everyone seemed to enjoy having Hollywood in town, maybe even the town’s police officer, who said he got an ulcer because he had to oversee security.

Giant fans were stationed around Wakita to simulate high winds. The fans were loud, and they were right next to residents’ homes. But it was all part of the show, and some folks tailgated while watching.

Because filming time coincided with harvest, farmers who brought their wheat to town had to detour around Main Street.

“And they were watching as they were driving the trucks,” Wade said.

Fun 20 years

After “Twister” was released, Wakita’s mayor told The Oklahoman the only thing he would have done differently is try to work out an agreement that would give more lasting benefits to the town.

But other towns tried to leverage a sweet deal and they weren’t chosen for the movie, according to Wade.

“We didn’t charge them to come to town, and I think that was an overall plus that came our way,” she said. “We gained so much from it. We didn’t want to be greedy.”

Knowing how many visitors have been to the museum, Wade wonders if perhaps the museum should have been charging admission all these years. She said thousands of visitors came the first couple of years after the movie’s release. She was told by the movie folks that the fascination would last about two years.

“We had no idea it was going to last this long,” Wade said. “But it has been a fun 20 years. I have met lots and lots of people.”

Before the movie, people didn’t come to Wakita unless they were visiting family, according to Wade. That’s no longer true, and she’s hoping for a big turnout when Wakita stages a “Twister” 20th anniversary block party May 14.

Visitors who pop into the grocery store near the museum may notice an advisory taped to a drink cooler: Storm sirens will be tested the first and third Fridays of each month at noon.

The best storm ever to hit Wakita has already come and gone.

Jimmie Tramel 918 581-8389

jimmie.tramel@tulsaworld.com