Donald B. Poynter was a difficult man to sum up. He was an entertainer, an inventor, an entrepreneur. Creative and bold with an endless stream of ideas.
Local folks long remembered his days as a theatrical drum major at the University of Cincinnati, where he twirled multiple batons while on stilts, a tightwire or a unicycle.
Then he built a career inventing novelty toys and gadgets – some of them rather risqué, like the Go Go Girl Drink Mixer – that were featured on Johnny Carson and David Letterman.
That made it difficult for his daughter to tell the nuns at school what her father did for a living. “I went home and asked my mom,” Molly Poynter Maundrell recalled. “She said, ‘Just say he’s self-employed.’”
Poynter continued to come up with wacky new products into his 90s. He died Aug. 13 at age 96.
“I’ve had a fascinating life,” Poynter said in a 2019 Cincinnati Magazine article. One filled with accomplishments in a wide range of areas, from business to show business, and a number of celebrity encounters along the way.
Near the end, a social worker called his daughter, concerned that the tales he told were hallucinations. “No,” Molly assured her, “they’re all true.”
Poynter was born May 14, 1925, in Cincinnati and grew up in Westwood. His father, W.B. Poynter, was a well-known Cincinnati photographer.
An industrious lad, Poynter built his own toys growing up. In 1937, he became the youngest member of the Puppeteers of America.
While attending Western Hills High School, he was a lead actor on “Father Flanagan’s Boys Town” radio show on WLW and later on NBC. He also performed on air with Doris Day, Maureen O’Hara, Rosemary Clooney and Clarence Nash (the voice of Donald Duck), and played pool in Cheviot with Andy Williams.
Mostly self-taught, he entertained as a baton twirler, ventriloquist and magician while in the army during World War II and to help pay for college.
His stint as the legendary UC drum major brought him to the attention of Abe Saperstein, the promoter of the Harlem Globetrotters, who hired Poynter to perform during halftime shows twirling batons, machetes and flaming torches.
He spent three summers traveling the world with the team and performing for royalty. In 1951, the Globetrotters played at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin and Jesse Owens ran a lap where he had won four gold medals in front of Hitler. Poynter was Owens’ roommate for a few days.
In 1953, Poynter made and performed puppets for Jon Arthur’s children’s show “No School Today” with Big Jon and Sparkie on WCPO. He also wrote a stage show, “Midnight at Eight,” a dramatization of classic horror and suspense stories that starred Basil Rathbone.
Poynter started his own Poynter Products Inc., in 1954 to manufacture and sell the wacky novelty items he created. He ran the mail-order business from his house in Hyde Park. His first toys, Play Logs, were three-foot-long Lincoln logs.
He also worked with Sive Advertising in Cincinnati and directed the first commercial for Kenner’s Easy-Bake Oven, featuring his daughter Molly.
His breakthrough was whiskey-flavored toothpaste. No one would invest in the idea, so he took out a $10,000 loan from a UC fraternity brother who worked at his father’s bank. Poynter found a toothpaste formula in the Cincinnati library, then substituted whiskey for water. He sold rye, scotch and bourbon varieties, each containing 3% alcohol.
Life magazine sent a photographer to his assembly line, but Poynter didn’t have one. He was mostly a one-man operation. So, he enlisted some friends to play-act in a warehouse with empty boxes in the background because he had nearly sold out of the toothpaste.
Poynter got a spot on the show “What’s My Line?” in 1956 where he stumped the panel on his occupation as “inventor and manufacturer of whiskey-flavored toothpaste.” Host John Daly said he also had whiskey-flavored mouthwash, and Poynter offered the panel a year’s supply.
“It was all funny,” Maundrell said about growing up with her father’s novelty business. “I was so intrigued with how he could come up with a lot of these things, the techniques he used. It was wonderful. It was probably the closest to a genius that I would come to.”
Poynter designed the toys himself, molded the clay and built the mechanisms, then took them to Japan to have them manufactured.
One of his most successful products was the Little Black Box. You flip the switch and the gears turned inside as a hand reached out to pull the switch. The toy existed solely to turn itself off.
“You know, it really does nothing,” Poynter told The Enquirer in 1959. “…We always thought it had a sort of pseudo-intellectual appeal.”
He then made it so the hand grabbed a coin and marketed it as the Thing from “The Addams Family” TV show. He also created Uncle Fester’s Mystery Light Bulb.
Some of his popular items were the Matchbox Steer-and-Go, which allowed kids to steer a toy car on a moving landscape, the Executive Waste Basket Ball backboard, a “Little Shop of Horrors” fly-trap bank and the first talking toilet.
Poynter pitched the idea of paper dry-cleaning bags printed with dresses from Disney characters that kids could then use as costumes. Walt Disney called it “the best promotion I have ever seen,” Poynter said.
Another character toy didn’t fare as well. Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, sued Poynter over his Dr. Seuss’s Merry Menagerie figures in 1968. Poynter then changed the packaging to say they were “based on” drawings Dr. Seuss had done for a magazine early in his career and Poynter prevailed in court.
Then there was the famous Jayne Mansfield Hot Water Bottle, a nearly two-foot-tall hollow plastic figure of the blonde bombshell wearing a black bikini. In 1957, Poynter traveled to Mansfield’s home in L.A. where she modeled for the plaster mold. “I did it for a week,” he said. “I could have done it in two days, but why rush?”
For the ad photoshoot, he had to go out and buy her a negligee because she didn’t wear one.
Life magazine ran a famous photo of Mansfield floating in a swimming pool filled with dozens of the bottles in her likeness.
“Almost everything I’ve ever done is either making someone laugh or giving them pleasure, and if I didn’t, I’d be out of business,” Poynter said in an 2015 interview.
Now, his products will live on in a museum.
His family donated several items from his career – including the original mold of the Jayne Mansfield Hot Water Bottle – to the Cincinnati Museum Center for the Made in Cincinnati gallery scheduled to open in 2022.
Sources: Enquirer archives, Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library, Cincinnati Magazine, UC Magazine.