Postcard from Oakdale

The cast and crew of As the World Turns bid farewell to the fictional town they've called home for 54 years. On set for the end of the soap-opera era

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Michael Kirby Smith for TIME

Kathryn Hays, a.k.a. Kim Hughes, at one of the final tapings of As The World Turns

The town of Oakdale has seen its share of drama. Kidnappings are common. So is infidelity. Try to find a person who hasn't fallen into a coma, drugged an acquaintance or been party to a baby switch, and you'll be looking for a while. It's downright soap-opera-like.

That might have to do with the fact that this is a soap opera. Or at least it has been. On Sept. 17, after 54 years and 13,858 episodes, As the World Turns will go off the air, ending a show that dominated daytime television in the 1960s and '70s, with millions of viewers tuning in daily to see the latest scandal in the Midwestern hamlet of Oakdale (actually a studio in New York City). Soap operas have been on the wane for years because of dwindling ratings and how cheap it is to produce alternatives like talk and game shows; there are half as many soaps on TV today as there were a decade ago. Yet the demise of As the World Turns is a milestone. It is the last of the soap operas funded by Procter & Gamble, the company that invented the genre in the 1930s as a way to sell more consumer goods (like soap) to America's housewives. For those who like to call the ends of eras, this is one of them.

During the final days of filming in late June, that sentiment wasn't lost on the cast and crew of the show or on the fans who kept watch outside the warehouse-size studio in far-flung Brooklyn, an hour by train from the New York City most tourists know. "The economic model is from a time capsule," said executive producer Christopher Goutman as he sat in his Emmy-decorated office a floor above the show's soundstage. Soaps shoot some 250 episodes a year, one for each weekday, a herculean feat unlike anything else in television. Still, it's no match for the TiVo era: daytime shows must now compete against last night's Grey's Anatomy and Glee — and without the benefit of extra income from reruns and DVD sales.

In recent years, As the World Turns went to great lengths to try to make the economics work. The show used fewer actors, shot scenes outside in lieu of building more sets and sped up production to the point where actors didn't even rehearse on set — they simply blocked and filmed. On one of the last days of shooting, Ellen Dolan, who plays police chief Margo Hughes, stood in her character's three-walled living room, going over the script. A moment before the tape rolled, she stuffed the paper behind a sofa pillow; the going joke is that you could put together a full episode by looking in enough couches and drawers. Once the scene was shot, the stage manager hustled cameras and boom mikes along to the next set with barely a pause, not wanting to waste a second of expensive studio time.

But such efforts weren't enough to keep the show afloat. And so during the normal hubbub of filming in June, there was also a lot of wistful rumination about what was being lost — a training ground for young actors (Julianne Moore and Meg Ryan are among the show's alumni), steady year-round jobs (a rarity in the entertainment industry) and some of the longest running characters in TV history. "The day I realized she wouldn't be there anymore, I started to mourn," said a teary Kathryn Hays about her character, Kim Hughes, whom she's played for 38 years. That makes her "a newcomer" according to Don Hastings, who has played her husband, Dr. Bob Hughes, for half a century.

Yet the last days of As the World Turns were also full of celebration, reminding one cast member of "an old Irish wake." There are reasons, after all, fans mailed in bars of soap to protest the cancellation. Talk to loyalists and you quickly see that for all the show's dramatic flair, the real draw lies elsewhere. Part of it is the comfort of family. As rich girl turned farmwife Lily Snyder tells her son in one of the show's final episodes, "You don't have to do any of this alone." And part of it is an odd yet permeating sense of hope. Eight failed marriages is no reason not to believe in true love. "All these horrible things happen," says former co-head writer David Kreizman, "yet these people persevere."