Don Poynter, Who Made Bathrooms Discuss and Golf Balls Stroll, Dies at 96


Some of Don Poynter’s creations, it must be admitted, had a certain whoopee pillow quality to them.

For example, there was the talking toilet, a talkative thing that could be hidden in a toilet; when someone sat down, a recorded voice called out, “Go over, you’re blocking the light!” or something like that.

And there was the Go-Go Girl Drink Mixer, a barely clad glass doll that turned her bowl to stir a cocktail.

But if some of the myriad of novelties that Mr. Poynter has invented and produced were rather inconspicuous, the subtle brilliance of one of his earliest and most successful products cannot be denied: the Little Black Box. It was created in 1959 and was a plain box with a switch on top. Activate the switch and the box will vibrate a little; then a hand emerged from it and turned off the switch.

That was it: a device whose sole purpose was to turn itself off. Other people over the same period had explored iterations of the so-called useless machine, but few saw the marketing opportunities as clearly as Mr. Poynter.

“Representatives of a New York trade fair kept asking what it was doing,” he told the University of Cincinnati alumni magazine, his alma mater, more than 40 years later. “I said, ‘It does absolutely nothing but turn itself off.’ Everyone thought I was crazy, but I sold it to Spencer Gifts. In a month it became the hottest product they have ever had. “

Later, when the 1964 television show “The Addams Family” appeared with a character named Thing who was only one hand, Mr. Poynter made a deal to market a variation of the box under that name. Mr Poynter said he sold 14 million of that. Over the years he garnered so many patents that it no longer counted.

Mr. Poynter, who was also a drum major, entertainer at Harlem Globetrotters Games, puppeteer, and golf course developer in a colorful life, died in Cincinnati on August 13th. He was 96 years old. His daughter Molly Poynter Maundrell said the cause was cancer.

Her father, she said in a phone interview, was still clear even in his final days, telling the staff at the hospice center stories that were so extraordinary they were initiated a call.

“I knew exactly what the social worker was going to ask me,” said Ms. Maundrell. “She said, ‘I was worried that he was hallucinating.’ And I said, ‘You are true. They are all true. ‘”

Donald Byron Poynter was born in Cincinnati on May 14, 1925. His mother Gertrude (Johnson) Poynter was an artist and housewife and his father William was an inventor and photographer.

The young Don showed an inventive streak early on; Ms. Maundrell said he told stories of smuggling lightning powder out of his father’s photo paraphernalia, making small bombs out of them, and dropping them from remote-controlled airplanes.

“I started entertaining myself,” he told the Scripps Howard News Service in 1988. “Then I discovered that entertaining other people is also fun.”

He didn’t do that as an inventor at first, but as a radio announcer at WLW in Cincinnati (where the young Doris Day was sometimes a cast). He enrolled at the University of Cincinnati after graduating from Western Hills High School in Cincinnati in 1943, but joined the Army the next year, serving until 1946, and sometimes entertaining his comrades with a magic and ventriloquism show.

Upon returning to university, he became a drum major and attracted press attention with his ornate baton twirling, which he sometimes did on a tightrope.

After he completed his bachelor’s degree in business administration and marketing in 1949, the Harlem Globetrotters became aware of his whirling skills and he spent several summers traveling the world with the basketball troop providing pre-game and halftime entertainment, including that Turning flaming batons into a darkened arena.

“His whirling batons caught the British imagination,” The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote in 1950. The newspaper said he had agreed to an advertising contract with a British company that made “the Don Poynter bat” and instructions he wrote.

When he was at home in Cincinnati during this time, he worked for Jon Arthur, who had a national children’s radio show “Big Jon and Sparkie”. Mr. Poynter made a doll version of the fairy Sparkie character that Mr. Arthur took on tour.

Poynter Products was founded in 1954. Mr. Poynter’s first big hit was whiskey-flavored toothpaste, which earned him enough notoriety that he took part in the What’s My Line? Game show. Another best seller introduced in 1957 was his Jayne Mansfield hot water bottle, for which Ms. Mansfield, a movie star in the blonde bombing era, agreed to pose against objections from her handlers.

“He concluded that a hot water bottle would sell exponentially if it was designed to be someone worth cuddling,” said Erik Liberman, an actor who has worked on a book and documentary working through Ms. Mansfield, via email. “Jayne Mansfield fit the bill.”

Mr. Poynter spent a week in Hollywood with Mrs. Mansfield to make the sculpture that served as a model for the bottle. “I could have done it in two days,” he told Cincinnati Public Radio in 2015, “but why hurry?”

Although Mr. Poynter used overseas factories to produce some of his biggest salespeople, he always made the original version of an item himself. “He didn’t just come up with the idea and give it to someone else to design,” said his son Don on the phone.

Another son, Tim, recalled being pushed into service with his three siblings. He often spent his Saturdays, he said, in the library where his father had sent him to search directories for possible suppliers. “He said, ‘Here is a list of companies I need to find that have this type of plastic or this type of metal,'” said Tim Poynter.

Ms. Maundrell recalled her mother Mona (Castellini) Poynter’s role in creating a number of counterfeit medical specimens – toes, noses, and the like, which are sold in test tubes filled with liquid.

“God loves my mother – he shaped her ear,” she said. “He had to put the mold on her and put her head in the oven.”

Don Poynter noted that there was at least one reward for the children’s efforts. “We were great at showing and storytelling in school,” he said.

Other novelties from Mr. Poynter included the Incredible Creeping Golf Ball, which had claw-like feet. On the green, a golfer could replace it with the real ball and it would run towards the cup.

Another golf gizmo led Mr. Poynter to build golf courses, said Pat Green, who worked with him for decades. It was a funnel filled with golf balls for a driving range; When a golfer hit a ball, the rubber tee automatically dipped into the funnel and picked up another ball. Mr. Poynter opened the World of Golf in Florence, Kentucky, in the early 1970s just to showcase the device; it grew into the World of Sports complex.

In addition to saving the golfer the hassle of bending down to tee off a fresh ball, Mr. Green said the device made customers hit many more balls.

“It was a huge money maker,” he said in a telephone interview. “They could hit 100 balls in no time and we were charging eight cents per ball.” (Similar automatic tee systems are used by some driving ranges, such as the one at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan.)

Mr. Poynter started other golf businesses including the Triple Crown Country Club in Union, Kentucky. Mr. Green mainly worked on Mr. Poynter’s golf projects, but he said that Mr. Poynter would also implement his ideas for inventions of his own.

“He once said, ‘Let’s go out and get black ants,'” said Mr. Green. “And I said, ‘What do you need black ants for?'”

To power the tiny cars he called Antmobiles, of course.

Mr. Poynter’s son eventually took over Poynter Products and sold the business in 1992. His wife died in 2007. In addition to his children Don, Tim and Molly, he has another daughter, Amy Poynter Brewer; 10 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

In a 1988 interview with Scripps Howard, Mr. Poynter pondered the device he was trying to invent for his own tombstone.

“If you approached it,” he said, “you activated an electronic voice. And it would say, ‘Come down.’ “