Don Poynter’s Legacy Is Mighty Tiny

The Cincinnati novelty inventor, who died last month at age 96, built a serious business around making people laugh.

I had the opportunity to write two Cincinnati Magazine stories in recent years about local novelty inventor Don Poynter, who died on August 13 at age 96, and to amass several taped interviews with him in the process. By starting his career in the early 1950s, he explained to me, he was in the right place at the right time. “World War II was over, and people had money and were feeling good. They wanted to laugh and have fun.”

Photograph courtesy Michael Cumella

Poynter’s most celebrated novelties were jokey. You sometimes laughed at the cleverness of his idea and the way it seized upon the pop culture of the moment. Other times you smirked at its naughtiness or weirdness, especially if you idolized Playboy or MAD magazines in the 1950s and early 1960s. Most famous was his Jayne Mansfield Hot Water Bottle, which was the subject of one of my stories and was all the more impressive because the “bombshell” Hollywood actress actively collaborated on and promoted the novelty item with Poynter in 1957.

You’ll see some of his creations in a special display that the Cincinnati Museum Center is aiming to have up next week, from a collection donated to the museum by Poynter’s family (the subject of my 2019 story).

But there was another side to his work. Poynter had a keen interest in media and electronics—gadgetry, maybe—that sometimes led to visionary work that rose above novelty. During our interviews, he told me about how proud he was of one invention in 1967, the Mighty Tiny toy record player.

He deserved that pride of ownership. Considering that one of his more famous novelties was the Little Black Box (that did nothing)—if you switched it on, a hand came out and turned itself off—Mighty Tiny really did something special. Billed as the “world’s smallest record player,” it played tiny records containing music composed and recorded just for it. The record player sold for only $2.98 and included three Mighty Tiny records. The players were manufactured in Japan and distributed by the Ohio Art toy company, which also sold Etch A Sketch.

I was meaning to write another story about this forgotten product with Poynter’s active involvement, but mortality intervened. I think it should be better known—someday, maybe, Cincinnati might be recognized as the Mighty Tiny’s birthplace.

Don Poynter

Photograph courtesy Molly Maundrell

“Records at that time were very big,” Poynter said in one of our interviews to explain his inspiration for Mighty Tiny. (By “big” he meant popular rather than physically large.) “So how can I look at something, change it in some way, and make it interesting or funny and also make it salable?”

He thought of the gadget as something for young children, not the millions of Boomer teenagers buying rock and roll records in the mid- to late 1960s. “Children a lot of times are impatient,” he said. “They put a record on for 15 seconds, then put another on. It isn’t just the sound [of the music] for them, it’s the idea of putting it on, taking it off, putting on another. It’s a toy for children.”

You can find pictures and even YouTube videos of the product online. Among lovers and collectors of toys, records, and all manner of audio-producing devices, Mighty Tiny has acquired a following for both its oddness and its charm. The freeform New Jersey radio station WFMU-FM has a website page devoted to it on its “Internet museum of Flexi/cardboard/oddity records” section. There you can succumb to the allure of the photo on Mighty Tiny’s packaging: A smiling young girl holds one of its tiny black records between her thumb and first two fingers.

Other images in this online “museum” show the Mighty Tiny speaker box in the plastic lid’s top, the needle on the underside when the lid is raised, and the AA battery slot just below the white plastic turntable. This case is dark green; there were other colors.

An online site that sells collectibles, Worth Point, lists the dimensions of the player as (in inches) 4¾ x 2¾ x 2¼, with individual records having a 2¼-inch diameter. Poynter said the diameter is 2 and 3/8 inches. And Michael Cumella of the WFMU museum page told me the discs are some kind of hard plastic rather than vinyl, as they don’t flex or bend.

Cumella calls the overall product “lo-fi,” and online videos show how hard it is to get the specially made records to play well on Mighty Tiny. Motor-activated when the lid was closed, it didn’t have controls for volume or tone arm movement. (Actually, it didn’t have a tone arm.) History’s Dumpster website reports the system played records at up to 100 rpm (revolutions per minute), even though Poynter told me he aimed for 78 rpm, a popular speed for children’s records in the 1960s.

But whatever the player’s performance flaws, Poynter went all out to create suitable music for the tiny records it played. That was an amazing endeavor, considering how short each recording had to be—Poynter said about 15 seconds; a blog on the Como Audio website pegged it at 20 seconds.

Poynter had an important ally in the making of Mighty Tiny records. When he attended Western Hills High School, fellow students included Andy and Dick Williams—two of the four singing Williams Brothers, who performed on WLW radio around the same time that Poynter was in the cast of the Father Flanagan Boy’s Town radio show. With shared interests, Poynter and the brothers became friends. While Andy Williams had long been one of America’s favorite crooners by 1967, brother Dick was also having a productive career, if not as highly visible. A singer and also a choral director, he was willing to work on the creation of 15-second records.

“I called Dick to have him do all the arranging,” Poynter said. “We went to Dallas and hired about 10 or 12 musicians. I went through an entrepreneur there. Dick did all the compositions and had everything ready so they’d be able to reproduce it. When I called the entrepreneur, I said we were going to do 39 records. He thought that’d be a week or two weeks on each record. We did it all in two days, because they’re only 15 seconds.”

The records stand out for their variety and for their eye-catching cover art. They were like the picture sleeves on the 45 rpm records so popular with rock-loving teens, only smaller. As one online commenter said, “The thing that amazes me the most about this whole thing is the quality of the artwork that appeared on the sleeves of the tiny records!”

Before I describe some, I must caution that I don’t own any so I’m dependent on images from websites that seem reputable because they sell the records to collectors. The originals were sold in thematically grouped four-packs, with each pack priced at 49 cents. It’s a bit tricky looking for original Mighty Tiny Records, because I also found a nicely done tribute/parody of a four-pack the indie rock band Darling Pet Munkee issued on Record Store Day 2014. So I have to assume there are others online.

But among what appear to be actual Mighty Tiny releases with striking covers are:

  • “Tiger Shake” by the Longhairs, featuring a photo of a young woman in a tiger-patterned bathing suit with a tail, wearing tiger ears and crouching a bit with hands extended as if dancing.
  • “Sax in a Hurry” by Moody Monk, featuring a gold saxophone that appears to be self-propelled into kinetic, blurry motion against a black backdrop, while the “artist’s” name appears in bright yellow.
  • “Coney Island Pop Pop” features a close-up of two smiling boys enjoying a ride on a carousel horse.
  • “Pussy Cat Looks Up to Go-Go” by the Mad Men, featuring a curious cat looking upward against a reddish background while the modish white lettering spells out the title and turns one side of the U in “up” into an arrow pointing upward. Very hip.

The categories for the four-packs include Rock ‘n Roll and Popular, Foreign Music, Latin Music, Calypso & Island Music, Country & Western, Marches & Novelties, Dixieland & Jazz, and others. Among catchy song titles are “Square Dance Hootenanny” by the City Slickers; “Shaking Shadows” by Amy Wilson and her guitar; “Hot Cha, Cha, Cha” by Miquel & Carlos; and “Trinidad Calypso” by Mondo and His Steel Drum Band. Keep in mind each recording lasted 15 seconds or less.

“We made every jacket as if it was a for the real thing, beautiful jackets,” Poynter said. “I would write and think of all these titles. We tried to cover every category. I had to go through thousands of pictures to find out which I could use and still have a semblance of what the title was. The music used was free of copyrights.”

Poynter told me a total of 39 individual records were made. There might be more, but it’s frustrating searching for “Mighty Tiny Records” online because the search also pulls up such selections as Tiny Bradshaw (who recorded the classic “Train Kept A-Rollin” for Cincinnati’s King Records), Big Tiny Little, and Tiny Tim, as well as Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles.”

Mighty Tiny was successful in Poynter’s estimation. He said he sold 300,000 players in Canada and probably another 300,000 in the U.S. He offered accessories and even a larger console model. Mighty Tiny also inspired competition. In 1972, Cincinnati’s Kenner Products came out with Close ‘N Play.

Looking at Mighty Tiny from a macro perspective, Poynter’s toy was introduced at a time when there was a lot of experimentation with audio recordings and the ways to hear them and appreciate their visual beauty. There were others pursuing the general idea that the future of records was in making them smaller; Poynter maybe took it to an extreme.

Both Discogs.com and TheVinylFactory.com have information about a fascinating experiment called Hip Pocket Records, which were thin-vinyl flexi discs manufactured from 1967 to 1969 by the Philco company. The idea was to create records so portable they could be carried in your hip pocket—perfect for teens with an active lifestyle. These 4-inch-wide records came in attractive picture sleeves, contained two Top-40 hit songs, and sold for 69 cents. The discs could be played at 45 rpm. Among the artists who issued Hip Pocket Records were Otis Redding, Neil Diamond, Young Rascals, the Doors, and Cincinnati’s Isley Brothers. Philco also sold a record player for the discs.

But Hip Pocket Records had competition—the Americom Corporation sold the similar Pocket Disks in vending machines for 50 cents. (They were also available in stores.) On the website yokono.co.uk, writer Masanori Yokono chronicles what was this format’s prize attraction—through an arrangement with Capitol/Apple records, it offered three two-sided discs that featured hit singles by The Beatles. Information about Pocket Discs varies a bit online depending on the source, but popsike.com says “Hey Jude” had to be edited from its 7:11-minute playing time to under 3½ minutes, because that was all the time a Pocket Disk could hold. (One is at ebay.com with a $400 price tag.)

But these small discs at the time were no match for albums featuring the new progressive rock, nor for the emerging market of 8-track tapes and soon-to-come cassettes.

Courtesy Norton Records

Amazingly, Hip Pocket records have just staged a return in a manner of fashion. Going on the market earlier this week were four new Hip-Pocket Discs from Norton Records, a Brooklyn-based company devoted to wild rock and roll, R&B, and rockabilly. Its warehouse/distribution center is in an old Cleveland mansion known as Franklin Castle.

These releases—two by the French group Grys-Grys and two by the Real Kids—look much like the compact Hip Pocket Records of the 1960s with their colorful, sleek cardboard jackets displaying appealing photos of the artists and boldly artful graphics and fonts. But there’s a big difference. These new Hip-Pocket Discs (the term is trademarked) are actually full-length CDs masquerading as small (5-inch diameter) vinyl records. Minus the jewel boxes and record trays, they seek to hide their CD-ness. In its way, Norton is trying to make out-of-fashion CDs hip again.

This step was taken out of necessity, says Miriam Linna at Norton Records. “Right now, largely because of COVID and also other reasons, there’s a backlog for people able to manufacture vinyl,” she explains. “I had a recent project, a [vinyl] album by a group of young French guys, that I was about to sell out. I went back to the factory to try to get more copies, and they said in 12 months. I couldn’t wait.”

So she released a Hip-Pocket version of the Grys-Grys album that was selling out in vinyl and also issued the group’s earlier debut record, which previously had only been available on vinyl in France.

As an avid collector, Linna was aware of the original Hip Pocket Records. “I’ve always liked the format and concept,” she says. “For me, as a goofball who loves every format of recorded product in history, I thought this was fun thing to do. They look so cool.”

Meanwhile, the spirit of Mighty Tiny also lives on, as interest in small-sized vinyl records and their comparably compact players continues. Urban Outfitters sells a Teeny Tiny Record Player with three mini records for $12.95, and there are a variety of mildly larger turntables that play normal vinyl records. There is a market for ways to mix retro culture with modern technology and portability.

Poynter would be pleased about these developments. “These things are only novelties,” he told me of his creations. “Novelties by their very name are new. If it lasts any length of time, it’s a miracle.”

By that standard, Mighty Tiny is an ongoing miracle.

Facebook Comments