The Time Theaters Had A “Way Down East” Pumpkin Pie Contest

Hello and happy Thanksgiving, my readers! And a happy holiday season in general–it’s officially that time of the year! As such, I initially thought I’d look for some sort of vintage, pumpkin pie-related recipe from Ye Old Movie Magazines to share. But instead, I found something better!

Introducing the great 1922 Way Down East Perfect Pumpkin Pie Contest Exploitation Campaign!!

Way Down East pie contest ad large

Because pumpkin spice was always popular, y’all.

Have I talked about exploitation campaigns on here before? Goodness, I don’t think I have. (Elsewhere, yes, but my actual blog’s missing out.) Well, back in the day, movie theaters regularly ran creative ad campaigns for their coming films–very creative ad campaigns. Sometimes it was as simple as paying a guy to walk around in a sandwich board, or putting up a colorful display. Sometimes, though, the theater owner would organize a parade, hire actors to walk around town dressed like characters from a film, stage a beauty contest…heck, one guy in Colorado had a “mother popularity” contest where the lucky mother’s prize was a Shetland pony. Whatever got people in those seats!

The Lost World exploitation japan Exh Heral Apr 10 '26

Sometimes it was dinosaurs.

In this case, an R.P. Whitfield who ran a Lyric Theatre in San Angelo, Texas decided to share his exploitation campaign for Way Down East (1920) with the Exhibitor’s Herald. Whitfield wasn’t the only person to come up with a pumpkin pie contest in honor of Griffith’s “old oaken bucket” epic, but he did send in some letters and photos describing its success.

Way Down East pie horsedrawn Exh Her March 25 '22

He pulled out all the stops.

Why were pumpkin pie contests popular for promoting Way Down East? (Wow that sentence has a lot of words that start with “p.” Pesky!) Pies, especially the humble ones made from pumpkin, were strongly associated with Americana. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote an ode to the pumpkin pie back in 1850:

When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before;
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye,
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

Since Way Down East was basically a grand melodrama of rural America, and since it was released in most theaters in the fall, the autumnal pumpkin pie was the obvious choice for a themed contest.

Way Down East souvenir book cover

In his March 11 Exhibitor’s Herald letter, Whitfield said he worked with the San Angelo Standard to publicize the contest daily and even had a full page devoted to it (with local businesses like the grocer buying ad space from him). He also “billed the town like a circus,” as he put it.

Way Down East pie contest ad ExHer Mar 11 '22

Exhibitor’s Herald, March 11 1922.

“I have no fear of not doing capacity business on Way Down East the last three days of this week,” he confidently said.

So how were the results of all this exploitation? Pretty impressive, it turns out–his March 25 letter shared an update: “The contest was a great success; 239 pies were brought into the San Angelo Standard office and local grocery stores sold out of pumpkin. A representative of a wholesale office told me they were indebted to the Lyric and the newspaper for splendid business in canned pumpkin. The contest created no end of comment and good business was the result.”

Here, by the way, were some of the best pies! Courtesy of Mr. Whitfield:

Way Down East pie contest pic ExhHer Mar 25 '22

Exhibitor’s Herald, March 25 1922.

Of this photo, Whitfield added: “Please note the two pies in the center of the photo. Two ladies contributed the original idea of laying a thin layer of crust across the top of the pie and cutting out the letters as shown in the photograph.” Pretty cool, no? Man, 239 pies–imagine having to figure out a way to try them all!

The editors of the trade mag were sufficiently awed by this successful campaign to add their own letter: “DEAR MR. WHITFIELD: Apparently we didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the pie contest when we printed your first letter on it and the reproduction of a page from the newspaper. At any rate, the second installment is even better than the first. In fact, the story complete is one of the few worthy of serial treatment. You can’t send us too many of that calibre.”

Way Down East exploitation wagon MovPicWor Apr 1 '22

A more basic ad campaign.

Pumpkin pie contests really took off during the spring of 1922–a chain of theaters decided to hold their own events, resulting in over a thousand pies being submitted. Over a thousand!

Way Down East pie contests MovPicWor Apr 8 '22

So that was the great Pumpkin Pie competition trend of the early 1920s, all inspired by Way Down East. A little conversation topic to wow your relatives with at those Thanksgiving dinners today–have fun!

And, as always, I’m deeply thankful for all you fine readers out there, and hope you have a splendid, memorable holiday season! Hmm, methinks I’m going to have to start decorating around here…*wink*




4 thoughts on “The Time Theaters Had A “Way Down East” Pumpkin Pie Contest

  1. It was a particular pleasure perusing these perfectly peerless and pumpkin-y paragraphs. (See, you ain’t the only alliterator around here. 😉 ) I’m majorly thankful for you, Lea! Happy Thanksgiving!

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