They laughed; they cried. Well, mostly cried.

There were boxes of tissues on every third table today at Blondie's, a tavern on the Upper West Side where nearly 100 fans gathered to collectively watch the final, ultimate, very last episode ever of the 35-year-old daytime drama "Another World."

"Better to cry with a bunch of people than to cry by yourself, right?" explained Liz Walker, an insurance broker from Piscataway, N.J., who had helped organize the impromptu wake. "The show is like our family, we've been watching it so long." (It's been 23 years in her case). "And the fans are like a family. When something goes wrong, you want to be with your family."

Adele Crea understood. She'd driven in from Westchester County with her older sister, Vicky--they'd started watching with their mom when they were in grade school--and was growing teary on the sidewalk before she even walked inside. "I just wanted to be around people who felt what I was feeling," she said bravely. "It's like a friend has died."

A committed group even by the extremely devoted standards of daytime, "Another World" fans had been fearing this moment; the NBC show had languished in the ratings for years. When the network announced its cancellation in April--the show is being replaced by a new soap called "Passions"--they were stricken and outraged. Many of the women (along with a few men) who turned out today are vowing to boycott NBC's remaining daytime shows. As for switching to "Passions"--oh, please. "I'd rather stick needles in my eyeballs," Crea snarled.

But today's event was more a farewell than a protest rally. People had spent whole decades of their lives with those characters in make-believe Bay City, Ill.--Fran Beauregard from Seymour, Conn., was one of several who'd followed every potboiling plot twist since Day One, May 4, 1964--and wanted to give them a proper send-off. About a dozen actors, plus producers and crew members, turned out as well.

The episode began--rapt silence descended on Blondie's--with Cass and Lila's wedding. Eschewing some of the usual soap shenanigans and cliffhangers, the show's final weeks have offered a flurry of pairings. "If you've invested that many years in a show, you want a payoff," says head writer Leah Laiman. "I wanted it to end with everyone knowing that these characters were going to live happily ever after, that fairy-tale thing."

Accordingly, viewers have been treated to Cameron and Amanda's wedding and to Toni and Chris's engagement. Paulina's been reunited with the daughter she sold while young and poor, and Josie and Gary have reconciled after that little matter of her having his brother's baby. Vicky and Jake are expecting twins and looking toward a happy future, regardless of the fact that he used to be married to her whacked-out twin sister, Marly (now in love with the lawyer who defended her on kidnapping charges). Meanwhile, Charles--presumed dead in a plane crash he arranged to spare his beloved Rachel the pain of his death from a brain tumor--just resurfaced in miraculously good health.

By daytime standards, this is stark realism. "It was a show you could relate to," explains Mindi Schulman, president of the "Another World" Fan Club for the past seven years. "It's not out there like some soaps. People aren't levitating or getting possessed by demons. It's true to life."

More or less. The final episode began with bridegroom Cass being abducted by a gorilla (don't ask), followed by lots of guffaws. "I love it!" yelped Barbara Rosenfeld, a Manhattan saleswoman. "I don't care if it's cornball stuff." There were loud booos for a "Passions" promo, too.

But before long, the monkey business was over, the other characters were telling Cass and Lila their wishes for the future and the tissue boxes were in demand. The sniffles escalated as a dead character named Frankie put in a ghostly appearance to bless the union. By the time Charles poetically told Rachel, "All's well that ends well"--the "family" photos she caressed were of past cast members--Adele Crea had broken down in helpless sobs.

"This has really been tough, hasn't it?" said actress Linda Dano, who played the exotic Felicia. Most of the actors in attendance had watched today's show together in a back room, then emerged afterward as red-eyed as the fans. "It's been tough for me, too."

For the cast, the wake had come a month earlier--when the episode was taped at the show's Brooklyn studios. There were similarities, though. "Everybody cried the entire day," says Schulman, who was on the set. "There were huge flower arrangements--and some people sent gifts, trays of cookies--from the fans, wishing the cast and crew good luck, just to say thanks for a great 35 years." When taping finally concluded that evening, everyone gathered for a champagne toast and a talk from senior cast member Victoria Wyndham (who played Rachel since 1972) about how proud they should be. People were signing one another's copies of the show's just-published 35th-anniversary book. "It was like high school graduation," Laiman says.

Dano is one of the few actors to have since landed another job: ABC hired her to rotate through all four of its afternoon soaps--beginning with Monday's episode of "One Life to Live"--as a character who's a "relationship specialist." As Felicia, Dano was prone to ostrich feathers; now she'll contribute style-and-fashion segments to ABC's "The View" along with her soap stints.

David Andrew MacDonald is moving to "Guiding Light" and will have it easy: After dual roles on "AW," he'll play only one part, the kind that exists only in daytime TV--a prince from a fictional island monarchy. Four other popular "AW" actors will migrate, in character, to another venerable soap, "As the World Turns," on CBS. That show hired Christopher Goutman, "AW's" last executive producer (he was--fans swear--turning things around) as its new executive producer; Goutman then hired Laiman to be the new head writer. The actors, Jensen Buchanan and Tom Eplin (the expectant Vicky and Jake) and Stephen Schnetzer and Lisa Peluso (the just-married Cass and Lila) will drop in on "ATWT's" Oakdale for stays of varying duration. Everyone else is taking a break, taking meetings, going to auditions and wondering what's next.

Of course there are those who refuse, even now, to accept the end. A cadre of fans called the Committee to Save "Another World"--who've generated thousands of letters to NBC execs, to its parent company, General Electric, and to the show's owner-producers, Procter & Gamble--won't give up. "We've kept the 800-numbers at P&G busy constantly," says spokeswoman Charlotte Swank, a Marblehead, Ohio, homemaker and a loyal viewer for 34 of her 46 years. "They told us it was useless, get over it, get a life. But we're not willing to settle for that."

There has been absolutely no corporate response to any of these protests, and even some grateful cast members think the campaign's hit the windmill-tilting stage. "This is out of our hands," is Eplin's advice to the combatants. "Watch today and say, 'God, wasn't it great,' not 'We were robbed.' Let's have a nice sense of closure."

Forget closure. Earlier this week the committee sent a weighty petition containing 4,051 signatures to P&G. It's asking Congress to pass a resolution applauding the show, and it's requesting that the Screen Actors Guild get involved.

While no one with any authority expects the soap to resume in production, it is theoretically possible that "Another World" could have a kind of afterlife. Both Disney/ABC Cable Networks and Columbia Tri-Star Television have announced plans for all-soap cable channels to launch in January; both will have many hours to fill. Might not "AW's" 35 years, or however many of those years that survive on tape, be a logical addition to one of their schedules?

It wouldn't satisfy fans' yearning for fresh news from Bay City, but they'd be a happy group. "I hope they start from Day One," says Schulman. "I'd love to be able to go back. I missed the first nine years."

CAPTION: Cast member Linda Dano (Felicia), left, smiles bravely while Lisa Peluso (Lila) reaches for a tissue at the farewell fete at Blondie's in Manhattan; Peluso, above, hugs fan Marjorie Warren as cast mates Ellen Wheeler (Marley), far right, and Taylor Stanley (Remi) look on sympathetically.

CAPTION: Melissa Scardaville, left, of Brooklyn and Jodi Bayer of Cliffside Park, N.J., watch the last episode through tears.