Panic at the Sick Ward: Plague Comes to 1970s Echo Park

In 1977, painting little happy trees was third base.

This is the lesson I took from the TV movie epic Panic in Echo Park, a truly lost-to-history piece of 1970s arcana.  In it, the crusading Dr. Michael Stoner (played by Dorian Harewood) romances a trust fund gal who teaches underprivileged kids in East LA how to paint like Bob Ross.  In the middle of an epidemic.

If I haven’t lost you already, there’s also a Whats Happening?!-esque crew of filmmaking ragamuffins roaming the streets of LA, who get into shenanigans while helping Dr. Stoner in his fight against the plague and City Hall.

To back up: Panic in Echo Park is the story of Stoner, a young Black MD who realizes that plenty of patients are coming to his “Downtown Los Angeles Hospital” with stomach aches and ever-worsening symptoms.  There is a potential epidemic on the doctors and nurses’ hands.  And while obtuse hospital admins and dawdling public health inspectors sit idly by, the plague afflicting the working-class, Black and brown residents of Echo Park proceeds apace. 

The film is a throwaway TV trifle meant to fill the air on somebody’s Tuesday night in Bakersfield, but it clicks with our recent experience of epidemic illness and government dysfunction.  Panic in Echo Park hits the same populist beats as much of 1970s American culture, such as The Blues Brothers, with an ebullient spirit of multiracial, multicultural uprising against the Man.  It has a blonde LAPD asshole trying to grill a Mexican mom in the ER about her son’s supposedly stealing a car. “Pinto. El PINTO?” There are wisecracking street kids and saucy abuelitas.  This movie has it all.

Panic in Echo Park follows Dr. Stoner, a guy from humble origins who became a young doctor with swag to spare.  He has bedside manner for miles and miles, and the people of the East LA community love him.  But when more and more patients start rolling in with mysterious symptoms, Mike Stoner gets down to work figuring out what’s going on.

Of course, the hospital boss stands in his way. I fully expected the furrowed-browed executive to tell Stoner to give him his gun and badge.  “You’re way out of line, Stoner. You’re a loose cannon!”  (To be fair, the boss character didn’t actually say that, but it strongly evokes the great scene in the 1976 film Network, in which bored TV writers spin one tired premise after another about a crusty but lovable police chief who doesn’t play by the rules.)

On his journey to crack the case of the mysterious outbreak, Dr. Stoner begins to suspect that all of the sick patients got food from the same bodega.  Here we find the great James Hong in an early, minor role as the proprietor of a small shop.  Stoner thinks bananas from Mexico had poisoned his patients and tells everyone in the neighborhood not to shop there.  Hong is understandably not pleased.

We’re wearing the same outfit, we should probably fuck

Then Stoner runs into an ailing, aspiring model at the hospital by the name of Ebony, who’s been starving herself for three days and, thus, had not been exposed to Hong’s evil Mexican bananas.  She’s only had water.  Dr. Stoner gets to thinking.

I should add that there’s a maudlin subplot about Stoner’s relationship with Cynthia (Catlin Adams), the breezy, rich, and beautiful Bob Ross-er mentioned in the opening.  In weird, stilted TV movie fashion, the B-plot about their relationship keeps threading into the main epidemic story.  There are delicious scenes with her snooty Anglo parents and family friends, where our hero gets to tell a supercilious plastic surgeon, “It gets way heavy down there, man!” (“There” being downtown.)

Ultimately, Stoner figures out that dirty contractors and corrupt city officials had used contaminated pipes to build the apartment complex where all the poor people affected by the plague lived.  He and his raft of spunky street-kid filmmakers work to bring the bad guys down, and they get told that You Can’t Fight City Hall in this town, and so on.

Why are we watching this?

Overall, Panic in Echo Park comes across like a very long episode of Quincy ME, or a distant relative of the 1971 Arthur Hiller classic The Hospital, which also featured bad bureaucrats and inner-city chaos.  At 78 minutes, it still feels like a five-hour-long Wim Wenders epic.  I suspect that it might have been a pilot for a would-be TV series, but the heroic Dr. Stoner and his white girlfriend might not have suited the suits in 1977. 

The film, as slight as it is, resonates with our time, when Echo Park is not as much the working-class Latinx enclave it once was. Gentrifiers strive to turn it into a mini-Williamsburg, while in 2021 the LAPD’s thugs infamously raided, robbed, and expelled the unhoused people who had built a community there. Panic in Echo Park provides a fascinating slice-of-life take on 1970s LA, as well as Hollywood’s awkward effort to be more inclusive and with-it — right on the cusp of the Reagan era, when no one would give a shit about that anymore.  As the previously comatose hoodlum Rico says at the film’s hokey, tidy end, “You did good, doc.”