Compared to some of its daytime TV rivals, which have dabbled in loopy fantasy and supernatural plot twists to keep viewers interested, "As the World Turns" looks almost quaint as it approaches its 50th anniversary.
When the venerable CBS soap hit the airwaves (originally in half-hour form) on April 2, 1956, the Hughes family was at the heart of the drama -- and several of those characters, including 87-year-old original cast member Helen Wagner, still play a key role in the weekday story lines.
"World" marks its golden anniversary with a pair of special episodes. First, on Friday, March 31, the residents of Oakdale pay homage to TV's classic sitcoms and transform themselves into characters from "I Love Lucy," "Happy Days" and other hits.
Then, on Monday, April 3, seven of the town's most celebrated women - Nancy Hughes (Wagner), Lisa (Eileen Fulton), Lucinda (Elizabeth Hubbard), Kim (Kathryn Hays), Susan (Marie Masters), Emma (Kathleen Widdoes) and Barbara (Colleen Zenk Pinter) reflect on the past 50 years.
By 1959, "World" was the highest-rated soap on TV, but things really heated up in 1960, when Fulton joined the show as Lisa, the scheming beauty who put the D in "daytime diva."
Now 72, Fulton -- who won a lifetime achievement award at last year's Daytime Emmy Awards -- still recalls how intensely viewers used to connect with the show's characters.
"When soap operas first came into being, television was new and people across the country ... thought on some level, 'I think this must really be happening,' " Fulton says. "They watched us the way people watch reality TV today. People really felt they knew us, and they went through what we went through. It was a phenomenon."
As originally written, Lisa was supposed to be a summer sweetheart for nice guy Bob Hughes, but Fulton wasn't interested in playing a goody-two-shoes. The actress held her tongue, but once she was on the air, live, she "thought dirty" while playing her scenes, she recalls.
"I did not change a line, I just changed her attitude, and ... once we were on, live, they couldn't stop me. That's how the bitch was born," Fulton says. "Irna Phillips, the creator of the show, said, 'Why, that little rascal! She can play a terrible person!' We actually got a telegram from Hartford, Conn., saying, 'If that bitch marries sweet Bob, I am never watching your program again!' They put it up on the bulletin board."
Two-time Daytime Emmy winner Martha Byrne handles much of the dramatic heavy lifting these days on "World," which she joined as awkward teenager Lily Walsh in 1985.
"Puberty, baby fat and pimples are painful enough when you go through them in a high school in the middle of nowhere, and to have it happen in front of millions of people [is even worse]," she says of her early years as Lily. "But to be able to watch and learn from incredible actors like Elizabeth Hubbard and Kathleen Widdoes and Julianne Moore is just an amazing training ground. Without those influences to help me transition to a more adult character, I probably wouldn't be in the business today."
Byrne is thrilled that "World" continues to find a place for veteran players.
"I think we do that more than any other [soap]. When I see Helen Wagner, or Kathy or Don, certainly Eileen, to me that says, 'As the World Turns.' They're why we're still around," Byrne says.