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Storytelling Series Serves Up Birthday Cake and Balloon Animals for Adults

By Emily Frost | January 11, 2013 7:16am

UPPER WEST SIDE — A balloon animal crown towers above the birthday girl's head as party-goers shout out answers to a high-spirited "Mad Libs" game and dig into homemade ice cream cake.

It appears to be the perfect childhood birthday party — except that the birthday girl is a 50-something marketing executive surrounded by guests she's never met, and the host is a creative marketing exec by day, and storyteller and baker by night. 

The party is actually for a show called Yum's the Word, in which the birthday of one chosen audience member is celebrated with a unique fusion of old-fashioned fun and modern live storytelling — and it's gaining in popularity with each monthly installment.

"It’s like I’m a little kid again," said host Robin Gelfenbien, who started hosting the monthly shows at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village in 2011.

"It’s really just letting your hair down. It’s a playful, silly show, but it’s grounded with good stories," she added, saying the December show had the largest audience yet, with 80 people in attendance.

Gelfenbien, who lives on the Upper West Side, spent years moving between comedy and advertising work, but found her real calling when she discovered professional storytelling. 

Every month, she throws a birthday party for one male and one female audience member — regardless of their age — entertaining them along with the rest of the audience using four or five professional storytellers whose tales are "funny, with heart," Gelfenbien said.

The whimsical themes of the night are inspired by ice cream, a nod to Gelfenbein's popular handcrafted ice-cream cakes, which she brings to each performance.

The tagline is, "the show where everyone gets a piece," according to Gelfenbien, who goes to great lengths to transport her cakes via a rolling cart with ice packs on the subway, and doles out generous slices to guests at the end of the night.

For fun — and because she loves puns — Gelfenbien names each cake. Past cake names have included: “Thanks for the memories Mint Romney” for a mint-based cake, and “What a Wanda-ful World” for a woman named Wanda.

"I’ve always been a punny person," admitted Gelfenbien, "I get so excited about it. It sounds so nerdy, but I could talk about [puns] endlessly." 

Her cakes are so popular that she's started taking requests for the treat outside the show.

Gelfenbien said she grew up in a family that took birthday parties very seriously, and she wanted to share that love.

"The birthday guy or girl is treated like royalty," said Gelfenbien, who picks the lucky celebrant out of a hat from the audience from the previous month.

At the show, balloon artist Matthea Marquart makes "ornate" creations that add to the lively atmosphere. 

"She has blown my mind with these balloon animals," Gelfenbien said.

The modern storytelling featured is still new to a lot of guests, she added. Past performers have included "SNL" writer Sue Galloway and "Jimmy Kimmel Live" contributor Giulia Rozzi, along with a host of other writers and performers from hit TV shows and comedy networks to underground storytelling slams. 

The next show, on Jan. 16, is centered around Canadian-themed stories for a show called "Moose Tracks." Then, on Feb. 20, Gelfenbien will feature stories related to "Spooning," in honor of the big mattress sales that always happen close to President's Day. 

The genesis of the show dates back to 2009, when Gelfenbien first began performing solo shows about her experience driving the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile and found a community of performers also eager to tell true-life stories in an engaging way in front of live audiences. 

"I thought, 'I found my people,'" Gelfenbien recalled entering into the storytelling community just as it was exploding in New York City.

People usually associate the craft with "The Moth," which supports professionals and amateurs, but Gelfenbien said lots of other shows have emerged. For the past few years, she has been cultivating storyteller friends and performing in their shows regularly.

"I always wanted to do a storytelling show that was special and unique," she said, noting that as an Italian Jew, food plays an important role in her life. "[The shows] are really fun... I love bringing people together."

The next Yum's the Word shows are Wednesday, Jan.16, and Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 7:30 p.m. (Doors open at 7 p.m.) Tickets are $10 (20 percent off if your birthday is in January).