Real Daytime Drama: On the Set of All My Children’s Last Day in New York

Irizarry and Budig rehearse one of their final scenes with director Casey Childs before the show’s move to L.A.

Last Thursday, on one of All My Children’s sets in its ABC Upper West Side studios, things were proceeding in the same vein they have for nearly 40 years: Greenlee Smythe (played by Rebecca Budig) was confronting Dr. David Hayward (Vincent Irizarry) about his rendezvous with her archenemy that happened while Greenlee was lying in a coma, paralyzed. But across the soundstage from this simulated sadness, the soap was going through its own drama: Half of the other life-size dollhouse sets (Erica Kane’s penthouse, Adam Chandler’s study, the Valley Inn, the Pine Cone Motel) were being dismantled.

The next day, after 10,307 episodes, Susan Lucci and most of the New York–based cast would pack up and move to Los Angeles, the show’s new home. In the soaps’ sudsier era, the seventies and eighties, out of the dozen-plus different daytime dramas on the air at any one time, more than half of them were based in New York; the genre was such a cash cow that it subsidized Broadway. Now there is only one left: One Life to Live, which will move onto All My Children’s vacated stage. And that may not be a long-term move: The past three months have seen the cancellations of As the World Turns and Guiding Light; when As the World Turns ends in September, there will be only five six network soaps on air.

The AMC cast is lucky to still be employed, though as they cleaned out their dressing rooms and said good-bye to a longtime crew, many of whom will be left without jobs, it was hard to rejoice. “I’ve got very mixed feelings about it,” said Cameron Mathison, who plays Ryan Lavery. “As far as the show and the future vitality of All My Children, I’m really excited, but purely speaking from a New York actor’s perspective, it’s very sad to me that we’re leaving and that so many other shows have been canceled. It’s a really tough thing to swallow, and the other big part of it is that there’s obviously going to be a lot of crew and actors now having to look for work.”

As the show’s actors reminisced, stagehands loaded racks of costumes and props into cardboard boxes. Upstairs in a jammed conference room, executive producer Julie Hanan Carruthers was finalizing plans for the show’s exodus to L.A., where shooting starts in early January. The move is being made for cost-cutting and technological reasons: The show’s new home will have a high-definition studio twice the size of the old one, with two separate soundstages. “New York doesn’t have the space that L.A. does for the sets, which had to be trucked in from Brooklyn and Queens every day,” said show creator Agnes Nixon, to whom ABC’s relocation orders weren’t a big surprise. “There wasn’t any secret about it, and I’d been hearing rumblings and mumblings about the cost of transporting the sets back and forth into Manhattan for years.”

AMC’s westward move is just the latest chapter of a doomsday saga that has plagued soap operas on both coasts for over a decade now. Once upon a time, huge, faithful audiences from housewives and college students to CEOs and politicians tuned in to their favorite shows every day, knowing that each installment was a now-or-never proposition. Locally, New York soaps were the launching ground for such actors as James Earl Jones, Christopher Reeve, Marisa Tomei, Meg Ryan, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Bacon, Kelly Ripa, and countless others. But by the mid-nineties, as production costs skyrocketed and ratings waned when more women returned to work, daytime dramas began disappearing faster than Erica Kane changes husbands.

The actors finished the day feeling off balance, knowing they will continue to create the same melodrama, but in another world. “It’s very surreal and bittersweet because it feels like I’ll be coming back here tomorrow and I won’t be,” said Budig. The cast and crew planned to gather that night to drink and watch a blooper reel, their last evening together in New York. “The whole entire medium and genre is adjusting,” says Mathison. “As times are changing, daytime television also has to adapt and change along with it, and in doing so there’s definitely going to be some not so great aspects of it, and leaving New York is one of them. And how New York itself is going to be affected by this is really tough to swallow.”

Related: Charm, We’re Sure: Vulture Makes Its All My Children Debut [NYM]

Real Daytime Drama: On the Set of All My Children’s Last Day in New York