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14 Things You Might Not Know About U-Haul

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IStock

If you’ve ever pulled up housing roots, you’ve probably realized that your accumulated possessions are more than enough to fill up a 26-foot-long rental truck. That’s good news for U-Haul, a company with 70 years invested in offering a fleet of vehicles to transport everything from furniture to cat stowaways. (More on that later.)

If helping entire households transplant themselves sounds like a mammoth undertaking, it is: The family-owned and operated company has seen its share of growing pains over the years. Check out some facts on corporate fistfights, a CEO fond of tossing money out the window, and which of their moving supplies are safe to eat.

1. THE COMPANY COMPARED ITS TRUCKS TO COVERED WAGONS.

When Leonard "Sam" Shoen and his wife wanted to move from Los Angeles to Portland in 1945, they found that no one was willing to rent them a one-way trailer. Shoen, who had just been discharged from the Navy, saw a need to enable families in a post-World War II economy to relocate on their own. He began U-Haul that same year, with the company comparing the trucks to the covered wagons of the early frontier. Customers could rent the trailers for $2 per day—a small price to enable what Leonard's son Joe would later call a “better life.”

2. THE ORANGE COLOR SCHEME IS A SAFETY THING.

Originally, Shoen had painted his trailers black. That proved to be a problem when he made a turn at a four-way intersection and got hit by an oncoming vehicle because—according to the other driver—he couldn’t see Shoen. The U-Haul owner immediately set about copying the bright orange design he had seen on highway barricades so his fleet would be visible to other drivers on the road. The distinctive paint job also made the vehicles double as portable billboards for the company.

3. THEY TRUSTED THEIR TRAILERS TO COMPLETE STRANGERS.

Before U-Haul was able to establish a footprint in every major city across America, their strategy was to entice local business owners to become “agents” for the company by dropping off rented trailers at motor vehicle service stations. Customers would drive to their destination, find a station, and leave the trailer (trucks weren’t introduced until 1959) along with a packet of information about becoming an official dealer. Though it risked losing their haulers to disreputable owners, the tactic paid off: By 1954, the company had over 1000 locations.

4. THEY USED TO RENT VHS TAPES.

The oil crisis of the 1970s closed many service stations, a fixture of the company’s business. Opening self-contained rental facilities enabled U-Haul to stamp their familiar orange brand across a variety of rentals: RVs, jet skis, lawn mowers, paint sprayers, and even party supplies were among their offerings in the 1980s. The most dramatic off-message business: VHS tapes. U-Haul opened seven locations in Michigan in 1985 that rented movies [PDF]. (It operated under the name Haullywood Video Rentals.) Customers could also make use of a free VCR rental that was customized with the familiar orange chassis. Lack of inventory and competition from the thousands of video stores that popped up that decade suffocated their business, though, and the company soon returned to their core hauling services.

5. THE FAMILY GOT INTO A NASTY FEUD.

Shoen’s 12 sons and daughters often had disparate ideas for the direction of the company. In 1979, the founder made son Sam Shoen CEO, leading Sam’s brothers, Joe and Mark, to quit. Hostilities boiled over to the point that, according to Bloomberg, Leonard once accused the duo of being involved in a plot to murder Sam’s wife, Eva, in 1990. (She was shot and killed during an attempted robbery.) Mark filed a defamation suit that was thrown out of court due to his status as a public figure. According to the Associated Press, a man named Frank Marquis confessed to the murder during his 1994 trial. His arrest grew out of a tip that came in after a segment on the crime aired on Unsolved Mysteries.  

6. A STOCKHOLDERS' MEETING ERUPTED INTO A BRAWL.

The Shoens’ familial strife came to a head in 1989, when many company principals were in attendance for a shareholders' meeting in Reno, Nevada. According to The Los Angeles Times, Mark Shoen got into a verbal altercation with brothers Sam and Michael. Tempers grew so heated that Michael was “pummeled” by Mark and Joe. The senior Shoen, who had been forced into retirement during the power scuffle in 1986, observed of his business that he had “created a monster.”  

7. THE FOUNDER LIKED TO TOSS MONEY OUT OF WINDOWS.

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Though the company seemed relatively calm under his watch, Leonard Shoen was far from being a demure chairman. To demonstrate the ease with which a corporation could waste money, Shoen arranged for a visual by appearing in front of employees during a meeting in 1970 and tossing $1000 out of the window. Anyone who found the action objectionable was forced to watch it anyway: Shoen had placed an armed guard at the door.

8. THEY ONCE BANNED FORD EXPLORERS.

Besieged by complaints of turnovers and vehicular accidents owing to improper loading precautions on their trailers, U-Haul took the unusual step of refusing to rent trailers to anyone intending to attach one to a Ford Explorer beginning in 2003. According to a 2007 Los Angeles Times feature, the company’s reasoning was that Explorer SUVs were frequently the target of safety litigation, inviting greater potential for U-Haul to become involved in a lawsuit. (Defective tires on 1998 Explorer models resulted in several fatalities.)

9. THE CEO GAVE OUT HIS PERSONAL PHONE NUMBER FOR ANYONE TO USE.

When news media, including The Los Angeles Times, reported on a series of turnover accidents involving U-Haul fleet vehicles in 2007, current CEO Edward “Joe” Shoen didn’t hide behind a corporate-speak press release: He appeared on Inside Edition to explain that the accidents were likely due to improper loading. If any customer had questions about the vehicles or the company, he said, they could phone him directly. He kept his promise: Shoen has answered the phone on Mother’s Day, at home, and at 5:45 a.m. Most days he’ll get between three and 10 calls. “Sometimes, though, someone may post something angry on the Internet with my phone number, and then I’ll get 100 calls in one day,” he said in 2013.

10. CATS LIKE TO HITCH RIDES IN THE VEHICLES ...

Marco Varisco, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Several felines have been discovered among boxed-up belongings in U-Haul vehicles. One stray used a truck as a delivery room, giving birth to a kitten as a family drove from Florida to Utah; a cat missing for nearly two years was found across the country, tucked away in a U-Haul, and returned to its owner thanks to a microchip. The cat, Kevin, was an orange tabby.

11. ... AND SO DO PYTHONS.

While litters of kittens are adorable discoveries, monster reptiles are significantly less charming. An Oregon customer drove a U-Haul truck for an entire day without realizing a 3-foot-long ball python had been curled up in the passenger-side leg space right next to him. No one is entirely sure how the snake got in the cab.

12. MARRIAGES HAVE BEEN PROPOSED INSIDE OF THEM.

Indiana resident Mark Nolt hatched a unique plan to propose marriage to his girlfriend, Kim Shannon, in 1992. Nolt took her to a drive-in where he and a friend had spent the afternoon preparing a truck to look like a cozy dining area with a table, chairs, and flowers. The friend, Kyle, called it “exquisitely tacky,” but it apparently had charm: Kim said yes.

13. THE SPACE ABOVE THE CAB IS CALLED “MOM’S ATTIC.”

Though the origin of the name remains a mystery, the company has a specific label for the small storage space that appears above the driver’s cab on its trucks and vans: Mom’s Attic. The area is usually reserved for fragile items that may not survive a trip in the body of the vehicle. U-Haul claims items stored here are as stable as they would be in the cab itself.  

14. THEIR PACKING PEANUTS ARE EDIBLE.  

Citing concerns over the lack of biodegradability of conventional Styrofoam packing peanuts, U-Haul opted for a more eco-friendly alternative in 1993. Their in-house peanuts are made of corn and potato starch that totally dissolve in water, eliminating both environmental harm and the potential for a child or pet to harm themselves via ingestion. U-Haul staffers have even eaten the peanuts to demonstrate their virtues—though we wouldn’t recommend it.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Walt Disney Pictures
10 Facts About Hocus Pocus
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Bette Midler said she'd be interested in doing a Hocus Pocus sequel. "You have to go to send in your cards to the Walt Disney company," she said. "The ball's in their court." While you get those cards ready, here are some facts about the original, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago today.

1. THE STORY ORIGINATED AS A BEDTIME STORY.

The story for Hocus Pocus came about after writer David Kirschner invented a bedtime story for his kids. He later wrote the story up and submitted it to Muppet Magazine (why does this not still exist?), where it gained recognition.

2. THE WRITERS USED PROPS TO PITCH IT TO STUDIO EXECUTIVES.

Bette Midler in 'Hocus Pocus' (1993)
Walt Disney Pictures

To pitch the story to Disney, the writers had execs enter a dark room with broomsticks and a vacuum cleaner hanging from the ceiling. They also scattered 15 pounds of candy corn throughout the room in an effort to invoke Halloween nostalgia. It obviously worked!

3. IT WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Though it’s a cult classic now, Hocus Pocus didn’t do that well when it first came out in 1993, perhaps because it was released in July instead of September or October. Though it didn’t have a terrible opening—$8,125,471, putting it in fourth place at the box office that weekend—it fell to $2,017,688 a few weeks later, and bad reviews from the critics didn’t help matters.

Entertainment Weekly was particularly put off by the movie, calling it a “piece of corny slapstick trash” and saying that “It’s acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell.”

4. BETTE MIDLER LOVES IT.

Bette Midler, by the way, has said that Hocus Pocus is her favorite film out of all of the films she’s ever done. (At least as of 2008.) Thora Birch agreed, recently saying, “The most fun I ever had on a film was Hocus Pocus.”

5. KATHY NAJIMY LOVES IT, TOO.

Midler isn't the only star of the film who isn't immune to its allure: Kathy Najimy has said she watches the movie with her family every year on August 15.

6. IT COULD HAVE STARRED LEONARDO DICAPRIO.

The role of Max was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio. He turned it down to do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

7. SARAH JESSICA PARKER IS RELATED TO A WOMAN FAMOUSLY ACCUSED OF BEING A WITCH.

Had Sarah Jessica Parker known then what she knows now, she might have approached the role of Sarah Sanderson a little differently. When the actress went on the show Who Do You Think You Are to trace her family history, Parker discovered that one of her ancestors was Esther Elwell, one of the women accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. After a young girl said she saw Esther’s “spectre” strangling neighbor Mary Fitch, Elwell was arrested, but escaped going to trial.

8. THORA BIRCH REVISITED THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN AMERICAN BEAUTY.

While the kids are prematurely celebrating victory against the Sanderson sisters after locking them in the kiln, they’re shown talking in front of a house as they walk to a park. The house was later used as the house Thora Birch’s character lived in for American Beauty.

9. THE KIDS WEREN'T HUGE FANS OF THE CATS.

The kids all hated working with the cats. Many different cats were used to represent Binx, and each one served a different purpose—one was good at cuddling with the kids, one would jump on command, etc. Every time a new cat was used, the children would have to coerce the kitty to trust them by using treats and a clicker. They got sick of it.

10. MUCH OF THE ORIGINAL CAST REUNITED FOR A 20TH REUNION.

Most of the cast participated in a 20th anniversary event for D23 (the Disney fan club) members. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler were not in attendance, but pretty much everyone else was, including Kathy Najimy (Mary Sanderson), Vinessa Shaw (Allison), Omri Katz (Max), Thora Birch (Dani), and Doug Jones (Billy Butcherson). You can watch some of that reunion above.

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