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Alum Don Poynter gains novelty reputation on campus and off

by Deborah Rieselman

Don Poynter, Bus ’49, was such a novelty on campus that any grad from the late 1940s probably has memories of him on the field as an “extra-ordinary” drum major, meaning his incredible talent was far from ordinary. So it probably came as no surprise to his classmates that he went on to carve a career for himself in many novel ways and ended up becoming famous for inventing novelty items such as:

  • the first talking toilet seat
  • whiskey-flavored toothpaste
  • the first basketball backboard for a wastebasket
  • Uncle Fester's Mystery Light Bulb (featured on the “Addams Family” show and which could light up in your hand or mouth)
  • the Jayne Mansfield hot water bottle (which aired on Jack Parr’s TV show)

As UC's drum major for three years, Poynter was rated one of the "finest baton twirlers in the country" and identified as "pep personified" by the 1947 and '48 Cincinnatian yearbooks. In 1948, for example, at the Thanksgiving Day game against Miami University, he dove into a tepee during the halftime show and emerged dressed in Indian attire.

Unfortunately, muddy turf pulled off his moccasins, leaving him in a dangerous position to be swinging a sharp knife under his feet. The next yearbook contained a photo [above] and called him a "versatile jack of all trades." He upheld the reputation with an interesting list of activities and accomplishments:

  • Supported himself at UC by performing as a ventriloquist and at magic shows, a sideline career he began in the Army
  • Toured with the Harlem Globetrotters for three years after graduation, twirling batons on a unicycle at halftime, serving as assistant tour director and shooting newsreels for television
  • Met Eva Perón and partied with Prince Rainier of Monaco
  • Produced and did puppet work for "Big John and Sparky's No School Today" television show, which aired in 280 cities for 13 weeks
  • Produced a stage show starring Basil Rathbone on the West Coast
  • Appeared on the television show "What's My Line?" and won $25 by stumping the panel as the creator of whiskey-flavored toothpaste

A hint of his future surfaced at age 11, when he began making and selling remote-control toy tanks and working cannons. Next, Don Poynter incorporated Poynter Creations while a UC student to sell "Play Logs" -- similar to Lincoln Logs, but large to create a inside play space for children. Later he changed the company's name to Poynter International and spent nearly half his time in Asia manufacturing novelties.

Thanks to Poynter, the world got to enjoy the first basketball backboard for a wastebasket, "The Thing" coin box featured on the “Addams Family” TV show (14 million sold), crossword-puzzle toilet tissue and the Jayne Mansfield hot water bottle. Later, when the bottle aired on TV, Jack Parr covered part of its "anatomy" with a handkerchief. Poynter also created the world’s smallest working record player, sold with 39 tiny records that Poynter recorded with real orchestras, and a Steer-N-Go landscape for Matchbox cars, which grossed $75 million in its first year.

Retiring in the late '90s, Poynter has held patents on 100 or so novelty items, admittedly a nebulous number because "I never really bothered looking it up," he says. He also built and currently owns Triple Crown Country Club in Union, Ky., and the new Widow's Watch Golf Course in Lexington, Ky.

In 2002, UC Magazine let him give advice on how to make the most of being silly. His “Tips from the Top” follow:

Ways to get serious about being silly

by Don Poynter, BusAd '49, novelty entrepreneur

Be entertaining. As a youth, I was a voice on WLW radio for "Father Flanigan's Boys Town" and also played with Doris Day. Years later, when I invented a talking toilet seat, I was the voice (saying, among other things, "Move over, you're blocking the light!").

Ignore the pain. I was UC's drum major for three years and twirled flaming batons and rode unicycles. One Thanksgiving, I marched in a loin cloth, moccasins and Indian headdress, twirling a knife sharp enough to cut a pumpkin in half. Unfortunately, the mud was so deep it sucked off my moccasins. I kept marching, but when I leapt to swing the knife under my feet, I slipped and slammed the knife into my foot. My feet were too cold to know how bad it was, but I felt the thud. I finished the show, then rushed to General Hospital.

Try the absurd. My first big novelty product, around 1954, was whiskey-flavored toothpaste. I needed $10,000, and fellow alum Bob Boeh [BusAd '51, then Alumni Association business manager] gave me a bank loan, although his father, who also worked at the bank, nearly killed him. It turned into the country's biggest novelty seller at the time. Life magazine ran photos, and I was featured on "What's My Line?"

Let people laugh at you. My next novelty was the "Little Black Box." When you turned it on, it vibrated and a little hand came out to switch it off. Reps at a New York trade show kept asking what it did. I said, "It does absolutely nothing, except switch itself off." Everyone thought I was crazy, but I sold it to Spencer Gifts. In one month, it became the hottest item they ever had.

Ad for Poynter's crossword puzzle toilet paper.

Aim high. ABC wanted to use the Little Black Box on "The Addams Family," but I said I had a better one; the hand snatched a coin. I gave them royalties, called it "The Thing" and sold 14 million. Next, I created a lightbulb that lit when you put it in your ear or in your mouth. I called it "Uncle Fester's Mystery Light Bulb," and they used it on the television show.

Don't be afraid of controversy. Dr. Seuss sued me for $10 million over figurines I made from drawings he did in '32. For two weeks, the prosecution called expert witnesses like Chuck Jones, the Road Runner's creator, to testify in New York. Yet I had purchased the rights and ultimately won everything. [Theodor] Geisel vs. Poynter turned into a landmark case on copyrights, one that was still being used in textbooks a few years ago.

Stick with your first inclination. Once you decide to do something and start spending lots of money, nothing seems humorous anymore. You start having doubts. But stick with your first inclination.

Disregard naysayers. When I started, novelties cost only a dollar. People would say, "You can't sell anything for $5," but I said, "Watch me." Then I charged $9.98. Then $14.95. Eventually, I sold a giant radio-controlled Marilyn Monroe doll pushing a tea cart for $150. Johnny Carson put the doll on "The Tonight Show."

LINK: Other UC alumni toy-makers and video-game makers.


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